Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.

The Charm of Being Read To

y648 (1)Recently I discovered audiobooks. I had previously discounted them because of time. Someone reading to me out loud means the story will take so much longer. And that’s still true. But then again, what’s the rush?

Our library is running a winter reading challenge for adults called Turn Up the Heat. One of the challenges is to read a book in a format you wouldn’t normally choose, and having read loads of print books, ebooks and even a few graphic novels, I thought I’d bite the bullet and opt for an audiobook. I downloaded a Charles Todd mystery from the library website onto my phone (which was fairly painless using the Libby app) plugged in my earbuds and off I went. Literally.

I went off for a walk, I went off to hang out the washing, I went off to prune the roses, and I went off to clean the kitchen and the bathroom. I accomplished such a lot over the weekend and ‘read’ a book at the same time. This was a revelation. Continue reading “The Charm of Being Read To”