Lars Mytting’s The Reindeer Hunters

Book review

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting is the long-awaited sequel to The Bell in the Lake.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Lars Mytting is one of the most exciting Norwegian authors today. He is acclaimed for his books, both fiction and non-fiction. His latest book is the eagerly awaited sequel to his popular The Bell in the Lake, and it, too, is a wonderful read.

In The Reindeer Hunters, Mytting has masterfully woven in the essential plotlines of its predecessor so that it is not necessary to have read it. (Reading The Bell in the Lake first, however, is advised, as it is captivating and, of course, reading it enriches the reading of its sequel.)

The sequel begins in the same setting, the fictitious village of Butangen in Norway’s Gudbrandsdalen. The three protagonists of the first book were the attractive local woman Astrid Hekne, the newly arrived pastor Kai Schweigaard, and the architecture student from Germany, Gerhard Schönauer. Gerhard had been sent to Norway to oversee the dismantling of the village’s old stave church that would then be transported to Dresden along with its two bells.

Both the pastor and the student fell in love with Astrid. She was more drawn to Gerhard because he would take her to his native Dresden. She would be able to escape the constraints of her small Norwegian community. She, therefore, married Gerhard, much to the keen disappointment of Kai.

But tragedy soon struck. Gerhard died suddenly from a lung infection. Then, when the dismantled church with its two bells began its journey, an accident occurred. While crossing the lake, one of the bells slipped into the deep waters and all attempts to pull it out were unsuccessful.

Astrid, now a widow, was pregnant. Because she suspected that she was expecting conjoined twins and, therefore, anticipated a difficult delivery, she went to the renowned Birthing Institute in Oslo to give birth.  She did, in fact, have twin boys who were to be given the names that she and her husband had chosen beforehand, Jehans and Edgar. She was able to see Jehans, but she was told that Edgar had died. Then she died from loss of blood as the use of the Caesarean procedure that she underwent was in its infancy and frequently not successful. Pastor Schweigaard then traveled to Oslo and brought Jehans back to be raised by Astrid’s family.

Mytting had left some tantalizing loose ends at the end of The Bell in the Lake, and his enthusiastic readers were naturally eager to learn what happened next. Fast forward 22 years. It is now 1903.

As it turns out, both twins had survived. They were separated at birth and now know nothing about each other. Jehans has remained in Norway on his Uncle Osvald’s farm. Edgar, on the other hand, is adopted by a very wealthy family in England and renamed Victor Harrison by his new parents.

Photo: Berit Roald / NTB
A recent photo of Norwegian author Lars Mytting.

The brothers are brought together early in the novel when they are both deer hunting in Norway near Butangen. The Englishman and the Norwegian happen to shoot the same deer almost simultaneously. Jehans graciously tells Victor that he will give up the deer because it was Victor’s bullet that killed the deer. Victor objects but Jehans insists and thus their friendship begins.

It was actually not a coincidence that the brothers met. As a child, Victor had been told that his nanny Ragna was Norwegian, and she had talked to him about her home and village. He had felt more attached to her than to his English mother and, as an adult, desired to visit the place where she had grown up. And he had developed an obsessive desire to go deer hunting.

Only later do the two men put two and two together and realize that they are brothers. Then the problems begin, and their relationship becomes quite tumultuous until they are completely estranged. The book then follows them back and forth as they lead their separate and very different lives.

Jehans leads a very difficult life. He works hard for his Uncle Osvald, who has driven him off the Hekne estate and treats him as harshly as he treats all of his workers. Kai, who continues to mourn the loss of Astrid, tries to help him as much as he can.

Victor, on the other hand, lives a life of luxury in England but develops an interest in his mother’s birthplace and also in Dresden, where the stave church was sent.

The Reindeer Hunters is beautifully written as was The Bell in the Lake. Mytting has created memorable characters and gives wonderfully detailed information on life in rural Norway at the time. He also brings in important historical events, such as World War I (Victor becomes a fighter pilot) and life during the devastating Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 (both Jehans and his wife contract this flu).

Mytting also closes this book with unanswered questions for the reader. What is the fate of these brothers? Does Kai succeed in his efforts to convince them to come together again? Do they leave heirs for readers to follow in the final book of the Sister Bells Trilogy? Book Three, too, will be eagerly awaited!

Mytting, Lars. (2022). The Reindeer Hunters: A Novel, Translated by Deborah Dawkin. New York: Overlook Press.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.