‘Trees are sanctuaries,’ wrote the German author and poet Hermann Hesse. ‘Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.’
Hesse’s words are prime example of how Europe has always attached a vivid mystique to its trees. Myths and legends across the continent are based in and among them, from the dark forests that once covered what’s now Germany to the wish trees, still to be found across Britain and Ireland with coins hammered into them as votive offerings.
Authors have always tried to capture the essence of Hesse’s arboreal theory, from ancient fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood to the Whomping Tree of the Harry Potter series via the horse chestnut cleaved by lightning hours after Rochester proposed to Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for example.
One person entitled to nod vigorously on reading Hesse’s words is the Norwegian author Lars Mytting, whose new novel The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme is inspired by them to the extent that there’s almost a whiff of sap and sawdust wafting out of each turned page.
In 2015 Mytting had a surprise smash-hit in Britain with Norwegian Wood, a book that, for all it was elegantly written and beautifully designed, was simply a guide to and meditation on chopping wood and then stacking it neatly in piles. The author’s straightforward philosophy – inspired by observing the serenity that overcame his octogenarian neighbour every year when he performed the annual ritual of chopping and stacking – struck a chord with readers as a welcome relief from the realities of a fast-paced, frantic world. It was also a retreat to a simpler time when the fire in the hearth was the centre of all things.
‘All of mankind once relied on firewood so I think it’s encoded in our DNA to share a love for it,’ wrote Mytting. The raw materials were also the psychological raw materials of life, in that trees ‘do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life’.
It was a message that resonated: having clocked up more than 100,000 UK sales Norwegian Wood was made the Non-Fiction Book Of The Year at last year’s British Book Awards. Before that there was the small matter of 300,000 sales at home, an astonishing total in a country of just five million people.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, trees are the major theme of Mytting’s new novel The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme (MacLehose Press, £16.99), published last month. If anything Mytting’s arboreal descriptions are even better and more evocative than they were in Norwegian Wood, with Paul Russell Garrett’s excellent translation making this reader purr with appreciation of a grain finely realised in both wood and words.
For someone who enjoys chopping them into little pieces and setting fire to them Mytting clearly has a deep love for trees, something that permeates The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme. Their histories, beauty and significance underpin a fast-paced, thrilling narrative that swings from Norway to Shetland to France, fuelled by secrets and mystery, taking in sheep farming, concentration camps, the French Resistance, the detritus of First World War battlefields and some of the finest tailoring in Edinburgh.
It’s the 1990s and Edvard Hirifjell lives in Norway on a remote farm that he runs with his widower grandfather. When he was a little boy in the early 1970s his parents had died on a visit to the Somme battlefields, apparently overcome by a disturbed First World War gas shell, with no sign of Edvard until he turned up four days later at a GP surgery in a nearby town. The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme is the story of his quest to find out exactly what happened to his parents and to learn his whereabouts during those four lost days.
His grandfather Sverre had fought on the side of the Germans during the Second World War, something that made him an outcast in the locality.
Many years earlier Sverre had fallen out with his brother Einar, a man blessed with incredible talent as a wood-turner and carver who’d gone off to Paris to study furniture making and become involved with the French Resistance during the war, where he was declared dead in mysterious circumstances.
Edvard’s quest to learn the truth is fired by clues he finds following his grandfather’s death. He makes quick progress: the book rattles along at breakneck pace, revelation following revelation, twist following turn, until Edvard finds himself holed up in Einar’s house on a tiny island in the Shetlands. Only then, halfway through the book, can we finally pause for breath.
That’s not to say the book is all plot and no reflection, far from it. Take Edvard’s description of the memory of his mother, for example.
‘For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.’
That his mother emerges more and more from the wispy caverns of history as Edvard’s quest progresses only makes this passage more poignant, and these oases of introspection emphasise how adept Mytting is not just in terms of pacy plotting but deep sensitivity to his characters.
Inevitably the pace drops a little in the second half of the book and the narrative suffers slightly for it.
The focus shifts to the relationship between Edvard and Gwen, a young woman who lives nearby and who seems to know more than she’s letting on about the enigmatic Norwegian who lived on the island when he was supposed to be long dead and the mysterious inheritance that triggered the rift with his brother back home. Mytting is a novelist of great skill but Gwen is the only aspect of the book that he doesn’t quite pull off. Designed to be enigmatic, she is too heavily burdened with plot devices and narrative baggage to be the nuanced, conflicted character Mytting intends.
This means the chemistry between her and Edvard remains just short of convincing, not least because Edvard’s love interest back home, his recently reignited first love Hanne, is a far more plausible and likable character. For this reason we’re never quite rooting for Gwen and Edvard the way we should be.
None of this detracts from the quest for answers, however, and the suspense is eked out expertly to the end, where the physical and emotional roots of the story finally come together.
As well as masterful plotting and writing, what sets this book apart from your common or garden page-turner is the author’s deep love for trees and wood that underpins the entire narrative. From the rich descriptions of the walnut stock of a shotgun, displaying Mytting’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the science and beauty of wood as well as its chopping and stacking, to the loud reports of the snapping metal girdles placed by Einar around the birch trees on the family farm decades earlier being finally popped by expanding trunks, there’s a tactile sensuousness to Mytting’s trees that’s beautifully realised in Paul Russell Garrett’s masterly translation.
Trees have a special symbolism for us. We plant trees as memorials, to mark celebrations and as symbols of hope, and we plant them for religious and spiritual reasons. I read some of The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme under the breeze-rustled leaves of a giant, sprawling yew in a rural Shropshire churchyard. Its massive, sheaf-like trunk, as if several trees had been pulled together in a bunch, was some 40ft in circumference. Ancient gravestones in its glacial-paced path of expansion, some of them from the eighteenth century, were tilted forward and it was almost impossible to tell where the tree ended and the ground began.
Affixed to the wooden slats of the church porch by rusting thumb tacks was a fading laminated notice that announced the results of a scientific investigation estimating the tree to be somewhere in the region of 2,700 years old.
It was most likely planted by druids who revered the yew as a sacred tree and would use it to denote a holy place. Sitting reading in the dappled sunlight of its shade gave me a hint of Hesse’s ‘sanctuary’ and a better understanding of Edvard’s quest for the truth of his heritage.