The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting
Acclaimed Norwegian author, Lars Mytting, recently published his debut fiction novel, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, translated from the original Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett. Following (chronologically and poetically) his bestselling non-fiction book on woodcutting, Norwegian Wood, this novel is a tender story about finding one’s roots.
For most of his twenty-five years on earth, Edvard Hirifjell has worked as a potato farmer with his bestefar (“grandfather”) Sverre Hirifjell in the Shetland Islands. Spending most of his days with damp, dark dirt and listening to Sverre’s symphonies deep into the night, Edvard’s faint yet colourful memories of his deceased parents soon come to light. After Sverre’s death, the anonymous donation of a beautifully-crafted coffin immediately piques his curiosity. Edvard recalls his grandfather’s brother, Einar Hirifjell, a woodworker and cabinetmaker, who may still be alive.
Having never met Einar before, Edvard assumes that he might have answers to the mystery of his parents, Nicole Daireaux and Walter Hirijfell, who were killed by an undetonated mine in Northern France. Edvard contacts Einar’s hairdresser Agnes Grey and discovers that Einar had fashioned another identity for himself during the First World War: a French cabinetmaker named Oscar Ribaut. The quest for information leads Edvard into the embraces of two women, his childhood friend Hanne Solvoll and the irresistible heiress to the island of Haaf Gruney, Gwendolyn Winterfinch. In his desire to amass the fragments of his past, Edvard finds his present loyalties divided and his future uncertain.
I admire Mytting’s foregrounding of family history against a backdrop of world history. Edvard discovers that his family past is rooted in earth and conflict. His story takes place in the Shetland Islands, which was pawned to Scotland in 1472 but is still home to many Norwegian people. His grandparents’ stories go back to the Battle of the Somme in 1916, but can be traced back even further to wood and woods when the question of a family inheritance arises. Images in the novel are like splashes of colour on a blank canvas. For Edvard, home and family take the form of his mother’s blue summer dress. To his mother’s family, the walnut tree is a symbol, heirloom, and cherished commodity that acts as the counterpoint of broken promises, lives, and families.
Featuring prominently in the pages of Edvard’s century-long family chronicle is manual labour and skilled craftwork in the forms of farming, planting, boat rowing, shipbuilding, tree felling, cabinet-making, dressmaking, and preparing homemade fare. For all his constant journeying, Edvard’s heart remains firmly attached to earth and hearth.
The story thus invites the reader to leave the modern-day maelstrom to look back to the time before our own births, before the world wars, to the people who came before us. I highly recommend this novel to young adult and mature readers, for those who are interested in history, war, woodwork, and genealogy. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a splendid, fresh masterpiece.
REVIEWER: Azariah Alfante
TITLE: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme
AUTHOR(S): Lars Mytting