Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2017

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, by Mars Mytting, translated by Paul Russell Garrett

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a multi-textured novel: a coming of age story, a quest for identity, a family saga and an intriguing mystery.  It tells the story of a young man who wanted to be someone the dead could rely on but who ultimately finds himself wanting to be ‘normal’, to get on with his real life, and to belong in his community.

A mystery about his early childhood haunts Edvard Hirifjell.  In 1971 when he was three, his parents Nicole and Walter left the Hirifjell farm near the Norwegian village of Saksum and visited the French village of Authuille by the Somme, infamous as the site of the WW1 Battle which killed over 50,000 British soldiers on the first day.  As a boy he learns that they were killed by gas leaking from unexploded WW1 shells, and that he vanished for four days afterwards until he was found at a doctor’s surgery 120 kilometres away, in the seaside town of Le Crotoy. But he does not learn this from his grandfather Sverre, who brought him up, but rather from newspaper reports in a neighbour’s house.  He wants to know what they were doing there, and why they had taken him to a place so dangerous. He is promised that he will be told when he is big enough but he learns nothing more until after his grandfather dies.

The psychological transformation of Edvard is one of the most interesting things about this novel.  Solving the mystery of his antecedents takes him from Norway to the Shetland Islands (a bleak and barren landscape familiar to those of us who watch the TV series Shetland), to Aberdeen in Scotland, and to Authuille by the Somme, and the pieces of the puzzle eventually fit together in a satisfactory way as novels of this type must do.  But it is Edvard’s transition from a naïve young man with guileless ways to a wiser strategist that absorbed me… it is mostly a plot-driven novel with moments of intense dramatic tension, but when Edvard encounters an attractive young woman in the Shetlands he has to learn to dissemble.  Hanne is waiting at home for him and he needs her to mind the farm in his absence, so when he calls her to let her know that his homecoming will be delayed, he can’t tell her that Gwen is part of the reason he isn’t rushing home.  But with Gwen, he can’t have the kind of open-hearted relationship that he’d had with Hanne because he soon works out that she is hiding things he needs to know…

And there is an inheritance that matters a great deal to both of them.

It’s very enjoyable reading.

PS The translation is excellent.

Author: Lars Mytting
Title: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme (Svøm med dem som drunker)
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett
Publisher: MacLehose Press, 2017, first published in 2014
ISBN: 9780857056030
Review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

 


Responses

  1. I’m not reading this review yet as I have a copy of this book in my hot little hands – can’t wait 😊

    • I predict that you will love it!

      • 😁

        • I did like it Lisa – he writes beautifully about place, doesn’t he? I have to admit though that I got a bit lost in the relationship between the 2 main characters – this may have been because I read it in small sections and as a result missed some of the messages.

          • I’m so glad you liked it. Yes, sometimes a disjointed structure can be a bit difficult if you get interrupted but overall, I think it’s not too hard to follow if you can get a clear run at it.

  2. I hesitated even to read the review. The Somme. Not ANOTHER WWI re-write. But no, a contemporary Norwegian mystery set in Belgium where England fought Germany. Sounds good, if it comes to my library I’ll read it.

    • Yes, that’s what I thought, oh no not an other one…
      Interestingly, Google Translate tells me that the Norwegian title translates as ‘Swim with those who are drowning’. I think that the English title has been used to capitalise on the centenary on the assumption that it will harvest interest in WW1 when the opposite might apply to those feeling WW1 fatigue.


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