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

It is uncommon for a book not originally written in English to become popular in the UK, but Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting achieved this rare feat when his book Norwegian Wood became a (surprising) hit among British readers. Mytting’s international success is an example of how books about apparently niche subjects can end up having a broad readership (Norwegian Wood details the craft of woodcutting in the some of the coldest areas of Norway). The book, in Norwegian titled Hel Ved (Whole Wood), won the award for best Non-Fiction book of the year in 2016 at the British Book Industry Awards.

Mytting’s success, together with that of writers such as Haruki Murakami, Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgård, gives renewed hope for translated literature in English. Swedish crime writers like Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell made it possible for Scandinavian fiction to gain a firm foothold in an almost impenetrable market. 2018 was the inaugural year of the National Book Award of Translated Literature, with Norwegian writers Hanne Ørstavik and Gunhild Øyehaug (together with their translators Martin Aitken and Kari Dickson) among the finalists. Mytting’s 2014 book Svøm med dem som drukner, (Swim with those who drown) was recently translated as The Sixteen Trees of the Somme and named the Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month for October 2018. The bookshop describes Mytting as ‘a European literary superstar’, a phrase that twenty years ago would have appeared oxymoronic in the UK.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme details young Edvard Hirifjell’s search for clues about his parents’ mystical death in 1971, when Edvard was only three years old. Edvard grows up with his quiet grandfather Sverre on a farm in Gudbrandsdalen, a valley in the east of Norway. The story begins when the boy is 23 years old. Around the same time as Sverre dies, Edvard receives hitherto unknown information about his parents’ death, and sets off on a journey to the Shetlands and France in order to uncover what turns out to be an extensive family history full of dark and tragic secrets.

This part mystery, part entertainment is well-written, and Mytting’s skills as a journalist and non-fiction writer are apparent throughout; places, landscapes and activities are drawn out with enthusiastic precision. The translator Paul Russell Garrett has kept the Norwegian words for mum, dad, and grandfather, which add a level of intimacy when the narrator describes these characters: ‘Mamma was the one I thought of when I tested the loss inside me.’ Mytting’s simple language rarely falls through in English, and Garrett deserves praise for never allowing the reader to forget that she is reading a work of translated fiction.

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May 2022
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