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

A saga stretching from Norway to Scotland has ingrained appeal, writes Roger Cox

Like most UK readers, I first encountered the journalist and author Lars Mytting via his book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Despite the fact its title makes it sound about as much fun as a phone directory, it is in fact a fascinating read, teasing out all the various ways in which the art of chopping and preparing firewood feeds into Norwegian culture (no Norwegian father, for example, would ever approve of his daughter marrying a man who didn’t have a large and well-organised woodpile.) Published in 2015, Norwegian Wood went on to become a surprise bestseller in the UK and picked up the Non-Fiction Book of the Year gong at the British Book Industry Awards. However, the publication of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme isn’t merely a case of “celebrity firewood expert pens potboiler” – before Norwegian Wood, Mytting had already written two novels – Horsepower (2006) and Spring Sacrifice (2010).

Sixteen Trees... has already sold over 200,000 copies in Norway and Sweden, and the film rights have been bought by Headhunters director Morten Tyldum. The story concerns a man in his 20s called Edvard Hirifjell. His parents died in France in mysterious circumstances when he was three years old, and since then he has lived on the family farm with his grandfather, Sverre. Because Sverre chose to fight on the German side in the Second World War – as part of the Norwegian Legion which was sent to fight on the Russian Front – Edvard’s childhood and adolescence were difficult, as locals who suffered under the Nazis viewed him and his family with suspicion.

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When Sverre dies, however, and it transpires that the undertakers already have a beautiful, highly ornate coffin set aside for him, designed and made by his estranged brother Einar, Edvard embarks on a voyage of discovery that takes him first to a remote corner of Shetland (the island of Haaf Gruney) and then to the battlefields of the Somme, as he tries to piece together his family history and also that of Gwen Winterfinch, an aristocratic young Scot of about his age who he meets in Shetland, and whose past increasingly seems to be bound up with his own.

To say that wood of various kinds is central to the story would be an understatement – this is a book in which wood not only plays an important role in the narrative, but also one in which wood in different states can help set the mood of a scene. Even people’s attitudes to wood are significant – in contrast to the romantic Einar, a prodigiously skilled cabinetmaker who left the family farm to train in Paris before the war and who made wood his life, the taciturn Sverre’s few attempts at woodworking are simple and straightforward.

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Gwen, meanwhile, has an appreciation for wood of great beauty and value that is supposed to fit with her social class, although herein lies one of the principal flaws of the book: while Mytting’s portrayal of a tweedy Scots aristocrat is highly detailed, it’s a little overdone at times. A Scandinavian audience will no doubt be fascinated by the way members of the British upper classes still fetishise things like Egyptian cotton shirts and highly-polished wooden gun stocks, but some British readers, having got the measure of Gwen in a couple of paragraphs, may find all this extra embellishment unnecessary. There are times, too, particularly in some of her more heated exchanges with Edvard, in which the things Gwen says don’t quite ring true; if she were an antique, she would be a skilfully made facsimile rather than the real McCoy.

That said, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is so cleverly plotted, and it builds up such effortless dramatic momentum as it zeroes in on its conclusion, that it’s easy to overlook these imperfections. And after reading it you’ll never look at an ancient walnut tree in quite the same way again.

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The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is published by Maclehose, £16.99

Lars Mytting is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 19 August