The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a slow-moving mystery that explores entangled themes of death, grief, history, family and timber. The novel follows Edvard, who grows up on a remote potato farm in Norway with his taciturn grandfather, Sverre. It focuses on Edvard’s quest to unlock the mystery behind his parents’ death – and his own disappearance in the woodlands in France, aged three. As Edvard slowly untangles the mystery of what happened in 1971, he must travel beyond the Norwegian potato farm to the Scottish Shetlands and to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The novel’s landscape and characters are beautifully drawn. The gorgeous, sometimes austere landscapes are captured simply through sparse descriptions. These bleak landscapes are harmonised with an ensemble of interesting characters displaying eccentricities that are likeable and believable. Yet, none are superfluous, as each is interconnected with the central mystery. Death is, interestingly, presented as a catalyst throughout the novel. Edvard’s childhood is shadowed by his parents’ death and the distant memory of his mother. The arrival of a coffin for his grandfather, long before his death, is presented as a further clue to the unknown secrets in his family history. As a result, death is presented as a beginning rather than an ending.

It wasn’t until halfway through the book that the first reference to the titular trees surfaced. Yet, this slow unravelling mirrors the circling introspection inevitably involved with investigating a family mystery. Ultimately, the quest to resolve his family’s secrets is secondary to Edvard’s journey through the history of previous generations to find himself.

Rose Maurice