Norway, 1880. So cold a woman leaned against a wall in church and froze to death, her skin stuck to the wall. No wonder my ancestors left. I love stories like this that are so atmospheric you need to wrap yourself in a blanket to read them.
This is a story with everything: a moody all encompassing setting, a plot where the morality is a bit twisted so you’re not really sure whose side you are on, there are awakenings and unrequited love and passionate love, a bit of star-crossing, snow, pedantic authorities and gutsy locals and a feisty woman who dreams of a better life. More snow. There are Norwegian folk stories that have been passed down the generations and a little bit of old magic…or it might not be magic – perhaps there is a explanation why the bells ring out because surely they cannot ring on their own? But when you’re reading this book and find yourself in a Norway snowdrift in 1888 you do wonder if there’s not something in it.
I’m really drawn in to historic problems, interesting dilemmas that need solving and once solved we cannot imagine how they lived before. Here’s one where the architects in the story are complaining about measuring in Saxon feet when the Norwegians have gone over to metric. How do you determine what is, exactly, a standard Saxon foot?
Four respectable men, who have never met before, would, on the king’s orders, gather on a particular Sunday and spend the night travelling to some randomly chosen church. They would wait outside and, when Mass was over they’d pull aside the first sixteen men who came out and tell them to remove their right shoes…
There’s a lot of sound in this book: ice cracking and melt-water dripping, the swish of a sled and footfalls in the snow, but always in the background are the bells. They ring for celebration and for warning and their sound is different depending on the weather. Snow is a dampener. But they have other moods: they vibrate, they hum. The life of our heroine, Astrid, is tied up with the bells and at one point, as she dismantles them – “the hook touched the side and a dark, humming sound surrounded her. It shifted tone, then dissolved. And she thought that if it were visible it would look like drops of blood in water.”
This book is beautifully translated from Norwegian with a lovely rhythm to the words, evocative imagery and a rural dialect that plays in your head like music. I’m wondering how many words the Norwegians have for snow.
I was a little disappointed by the ending (with that sinking feeling you get when you have only a few pages to go in a book but just know there’s a lot more story to tuck in and you start to panic as the pages run out…) until I discovered that it is not the end at all. It’s the first of a trilogy. Oh, happy day! We get a chance to take our snow boots off, warm up, enjoy the fact that we do not, in fact, live in 1880s Norway before Book Two comes out and we plunge back into the snow.