Wed. May 25th, 2022

For the folk of Lars Mytting’s Norway, ancient dreams and modern desires knit together like the warp and weft of the storytelling tapestries that propel his plot.

In this novel, set at the start of the 20th century, a skeptical parson tells a visitor that, although “We’ve lost our sense of wonder”, the superstitions of his flock endure. In go-ahead 1904, “logic and rationality” may appear to rule. But “to truly understand a human being”, the priest warns, “one must seek the irrational explanation”. Mytting’s fiction joins that quest.

Mytting scored a surprise how-to hit in 2011 with Norwegian Wood – a woodchopper’s companion – a book that proved the lingering appeal of traditional ways. That triumph, translated in 2015, was followed by English-language versions of his 2014 novel The Sixteen Trees of the Somme and then The Bell in the Lake. First published in 2018, the latter book began a trilogy that The Reindeer Hunters continues.

A prologue returns us to 1611 in Gudbrandsdalen, the long, lovely valley that snakes through central Norway, Mytting’s childhood home and the setting for several landmarks of Norwegian literature. We meet the conjoined sisters, Halfrid and Gunhild, gifted weavers from Butangen whose prophetic, myth-decorated masterpiece, the “Hekne Weave”, has since vanished.

So has one of the twin church bells, cast by the sisters’ father but much later sunk in the lake waters by Gerhard Schönauer, a young German architect bewitched by the Norse past. That happened in 1881, when the sisters’ rebellious descendant Astrid Hekne died after giving birth to twins fathered by Gerhard. New readers may start here, as Mytting slowly drip-feeds this back-story and avoids cumbersome recaps.

Lars Mytting

Lars Mytting © Kyrre Lien / New York Times / Redux / eyevine

A generation on, Astrid’s surviving son Jehans toils resentfully for the grasping landowner Osvald. Jehans still pursues his clan’s “Hekne way”, with its “deep sense of justice” allied to a longing for “great and reckless deeds”. Meanwhile, doubt-ridden Pastor Schweigaard mourns Astrid and looks for the sisters’ missing tapestry, with its Norse doomsday imagery of “night, fire and sunrise in one”. As for Jehans, he hunts reindeer to augment a meagre income. One day, in the misty mountains, he meets and befriends an English stranger when both shoot the same majestic stag. Mytting fills his story with doubles, pairs and reflections. They lead down from daylight reason into a domain of myth.

The Reindeer Hunters traces the eerie affinity between Jehans and the mysterious Englishman, Victor. It hints at the magnetic pull of superstitions that thread beneath the conscious mind like “veins of silver and slag”. It also maps an age of rapid change. Trains, telephones, newspapers and motor vehicles connect Gudbrandsdalen to modern methods and ideas. Jehans and his visionary wife Kristine bring DIY hydroelectricity to their corner of the valley. Cannily harnessed, “the power of a steep slope” may make their fortune. Soon Kristine opens a model electrified dairy.

Whereas Mytting’s invocations of the fabled past can sound stiff, he truly relishes the valley’s crafts and trades. From the haymakers’ choreography, as scythe-wielders spread across summer fields in “a visual ranking of. . . age and skill ”, to the engineering of a hunting rifle or the right way to rig up a waterfall-driven dynamo, he packs the novel with close-up reports on the way this world works. Fanciful romance may guide the book’s spirit; rustic realism pumps its muscle. I now know how piglets can break up a root-clogged field.

Colorful and companionable, Deborah Dawkin’s translation bravely adds to the regional tang with stretches of dialect speech – her Gudbrandsdalen becomes sort-of-Yorkshire with (to my ears) a dash of Northumbria. Later, Mytting leads us far away from the valley farms: to Northumberland, where lonely Victor lives on a forlorn estate with a retainer-companion from Ceylon; to Dresden, where one fateful bell now hangs in a medieval “stave church” transported from Butangen; and to the Western Front, where Victor risks all as a pioneer aviator in the Great War. Although lavishly evoked, these far-flung episodes never quite match the close-knit intimacy of the Gudbrandsdalen scenes.

On home turf, Jehans feels “a duty towards a place” and its history. In spite of elements that feel closer to soap opera than saga, The Reindeer Hunters turns that duty into the pleasure of a craftily woven tale steeped in rich local dyes. “Something must die for something else to grow,” the pastor says, as night and fire give way to sunrise and rebirth. Mytting’s closing chapters neatly seed his series’ final part.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting, translated by Deborah Dawkin, MacLehose Press £ 16.99, 448 pages

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