Book Review: The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting – an engrossing start to a promising historical trilogy

This is another spell-binding read by the author of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, a terrific book which I reviewed last year. I felt the urge to pick up The Bell in the Lake when I saw that the sequel has just been released. I often seem to be one book behind. Anyway, I expected great things here and for the most part I was’t disappointed.

The Bell in the Lake follows three main characters and takes place largely in the remote Norwegian village of Butangen. It’s 1880 and the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard, is struggling to come to terms with the desperate poverty of his flock, the traditions and superstitions that hold them back and a church that is no-longer fit for purpose. In winter it is so cold inside that one Sunday an elderly woman dies, her cheek frozen to the wall next to her pew. The opportunity to sell the old stave church to be rebuilt as a historical curiosity in Dresden, and build a new church in Butangen seems a godsend.

Enter German artist and gifted architecture student, Gerhard Schönauer, who is tasked with making detailed drawings of the stave church and overseeing its demolition and transportation across the ice by sleigh. He’s a little out of his depth and the beguiling nature of the church, 700 years old and built in a higgledy-piggledy manner, makes its construction difficult to grasp. At least his host, the pastor, speaks German.

But then there’s the problem of the church bells. Twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne comes from an old farming family fallen on hard times. But centuries ago, her ancestors included two sisters, conjoined twins, who were noted for their beautiful weaving. When they died, their father gave up all the family silver to be poured into the making of two church bells in their honour. The bells have been known to toll warnings of their own accord. Kai has the problem of being secretly in love with Astrid and aware that the sale of the church includes the bells as part of the deal.

Mytting has crafted another well-researched and beautiful novel which captures a time and place that is instantly enthralling. I had never heard of Norwegian stave churches before and the descriptions here, as well as a lost way of life, create a fascinating background. But it’s the characters that really pull you in, and the drama from the dilemmas each faces, their decisions and their consequences. Though certainly the story isn’t the twisty jigsaw puzzle that made Sixteen Trees such a hypnotic read.

In spite of this being the first in a trilogy, which often means there’s some unfinished business to be developed in the next book, The Bell in the Lake has enough emotional power to make it a very satisfying read and leaves you wanting to know what happens next. I’m giving it a four out of five and very much looking forward to the next book, The Reindeer Hunters.

NB: If you have yet to read The Bell in the Lake, please avoid if you can reading the blurb for the sequel – it contains a fairly jaw-dropping spoiler.

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