Follow matthaig1 on Twitter

In this section:
>Reviews >First few pages >Character list

UK Hardback
Publisher: Bodley Head
Buy the book

US Hardback
Publisher: Penguin
Buy the book

Here's the first chapter!

Uncle Henrik’s funny turn

Samuel Blink was lying on the ground, pulling clutches of grass out with his fingers, as if it was the green hair of some rather evil and large-headed monster.
He was bored, you see. Totally, utterly, brain-numbingly bored. Not that he absolutely minded being bored. No. On the scale of ‘Worst Things to Be’ being bored was nowhere near the top. It was certainly not as bad as many of the other things he had been this summer. Like being frightened out of his skin, or feeling so sad he could hardly breathe.
But still, if only his stuff had arrived from England. Or if Aunt Eda and Uncle Henrik had a TV. Or a computer. Or a book that wasn’t written in Norwegian. If only there was somewhere exciting he could go.
True, it looked nice around her. Just by tilting his head left, away from the white wooden house, he could see the still waters of the fjord and, further in the distance, the vast rugged triangle that was Mount Myrdal. But nice as it was, you can’t play with a view. You can only look at it. And as it was, according to Uncle Henrik, three months away from the start of the ski-ing season it was going to be quite a while before it offered some genuine fun.
Of course, there was one place he could see that could offer something exciting. It was the pine forest right in front of him, that began where Aunt Eda and Uncle Henrik’s land ended, right at the top of the grassy slope. But he wasn’t allowed in there.
‘We still haff to be careful,’ Aunt Eda had told him and his sister, Martha. ‘If we don’t effer cause trouble with the forest, the forest won’t effer cause trouble with us.’
‘But the forest’s safe, now,’ he’d said.
‘Well, we don’t know,’ she said. ‘Not for sure.’
This was true, of course, There were still a lot of unknown things about the forest, like whether all the trolls who lived there were good or just some of them. And this type of question could do something to lessen the boredom of an afternoon, but not quite as much as seeing a troll face-to-face.
He was just about to pull a particularly large clutch of grass when he heard the faint sound of the telephone ring in the house. A few minutes later his Aunt was calling him from the door.
‘Samuel!’ she said. ‘I haff to tell you something. And what are you doing on the grass? You are far too close to the forest.’
Samuel sighed, and pulled himself up to walk over to his Aunt. She was quite a stern woman, in some ways, and certainly looked it with her hair tied in her bun and her buttoned up cardigan and her tight mouth and prickly chin. But she was a good and kind woman too, who was only really guilty of worrying a bit too much.
‘That was Fru Sturdsen on the phone,’ she said, once Samuel was in the hallway and taking off his shoes. He noticed Martha was in the kitchen, talking to Uncle Henrik at seven hundred miles an hour as he prepared roast elk and cowberry jam for supper.
It was funny. After their parents died Martha hadn’t said a word for weeks, but now you couldn’t shut her up. It was as though all those unspoken words had been saved up like money in a bank and she was spending them at every opportunity. And all she would talk about was the same thing – the time she spent in Shadow Forest.
‘. . . and so . . .’ she was saying ‘. . . when I was in the underground prison I met this two-headed tro-’
‘Martha,’ said Aunt Eda, sharply, as she overheard. ‘I think we haff heard enough of this conversation. Perhaps we shall talk about something else. Like how you are feeling about your new school? And remember, when you start school you must not mention Shadow Forest. I know it is ferry exciting to liff next to a forest full of such strange creatures, but we must not effer tell anyone about it. This is ferry important, because as I say Fru Sturdsen has been on the phone and -’
‘What kind of a name is Fru?’ said Samuel, frowning at the name as if it had an unpleasant smell.
‘It’s not a name, it’s a term of address. ‘Fru’ means ‘Mrs’ in Norwegian. ‘Herr’ means ‘Mister’ and ‘Fru’ means ‘Mrs’. So I am talking about Mrs Sturdsen. Your new teacher.’
Samuel’s heart sank. How was he ever going to fit in at a new school if he didn’t know the language?
‘What did she want?’ Samuel asked.
‘Well, she telephoned to say how ferry excited she is to haff two new children starting her school tomorrow. And she also said it would be a good idea if you wrote about what you did in your holidays. They do it after effery summer apparently.’
Samuel rolled his eyes. ‘Homework before we even start?’
He had already thought schools in Norway sounded strange, with ten-year-olds like his sister, being in the same class as twelve-year-olds such as him. But having to do homework before term began – that was even worse. Especially the sort of stuff he’d been given as homework when he was still in primary school.
‘Apparently, yes,’ said Aunt Eda. ‘Homework before you start.’
Uncle Henrik stopped crushing cowberries for a moment. ‘I remember when I was at school,’ he said, his gentle face broadening into a smile. ‘Every summer I used to make sure I did something interesting just so I had something to say.’
‘Yes,’ said Aunt Eda briskly. ‘Well, I haff to say that is not the same problem we face here, is it Henrik? Quite the contrary in fact. I am worried that there is rather too much for them to say.’
‘What’s the big deal?’ Samuel said. ‘Everyone thinks there’s trolls and other weird creatures in the forest. That’s why they’re too scared to visit it.’
‘They’re scared because they don’t know for sure,’ she said. ‘They think these things but they don’t haff the knowledge that we haff. And if they know Henrik is back from the forest then efferyone will want answers. So we must pretend we know nothing, and you must not write anything about the creatures of the forest. And tomorrow, when you are both at school and people find out where you liff, you must not try and impress them with stories about the forest.’
‘Hey,’ said Martha, blushing. ‘Why’s everyone looking at me?’
‘Because you’ve got an unstoppable mouth,’ said Samuel.
‘No I -’
‘Listen,’ said Aunt Eda, raising her hand to stop an argument. ‘It’s going to be difficult for all of us. But you must pretend you haffn’t effer seen Uncle Henrik. Well, not until we decide what we are going to do. And they must not know about trolls and pixies and so forth. If the willagers found out that we haff been to the forest and surfifed then efferyone would go to the forest. And what do you think would happen to the creatures that liffed there? They would be taken away and locked up. They’d be experimented on. That is what happens when people start to know things. They want to know more and more. And what about the forest itself. What do you think Magnus Myklebust would do if he found out?’
‘Who’s Magnus Myklebust?’ asked Martha, stealing a pickled onion from a jar she had opened in the kitchen.
Aunt Eda and Uncle Henrik shared a glance, and Samuel noticed there was something strange about this glance, but he couldn’t work out what it was.
‘Mr Myklebust is a man I used to know,’ said Uncle Henrik in a slow voice, as if each word was precious and breakable and needed to be let out as carefully as porcelain teacups from a chest. ‘After I retired from ski-jumping and moved to Flåm with Eda. He was once quite the athlete.’
‘Not any more,’ said Aunt Eda, shaking her head. ‘No. Definitely not any more.’
‘What’s so special about him?’ said Samuel, staring at the empty dog basket.
Aunt Eda laughed. ‘Beleef me, there is nothing ferry special about him. But he is not ferry nice. Not ferry nice at all. And he has neffer liked your uncle ferry much.’
‘Why not?’ said Martha, taking another pickled onion.
‘It is a long story. And you haff your homework to do. But anyway, the point is that if he found out about the forest he would want to chop it down and build lots and lots of houses. He is a land developer, you see. If he wasn’t so scared of what might be in the forest then he would do it right now. He already owns half of Flåm. Ski-lodges, holiday homes. He is the richest man in the willage. And he has always been wanting to know about the forest, as well as Uncle Henrik. So if he found out about either we would be in trouble. There are local laws, about this kind of thing. Laws that go back hundreds of years, to the time of King Håkon the Good, the first Christian King of Norway. Laws about knowledge of efil creatures. Laws that no-one has bothered to update. We must be ferry careful.’ Her attention switched as she noticed Martha pinching another pickled onion.
‘Now, Martha, that’s enough nibbling. You won’t be able to eat your elk. Honestly, what is it with you and pickles?’
Martha shrugged. ‘They’re tasty,’ she said. Indeed, for Martha, this was the very best thing about Norway. There were pickles everywhere. Pickled berries, pickled onions, pickled cucumbers, pickled cornichons. And she was eating them at every given opportunity.
‘Right, well, when you do your homework you must not say anything about the creatures that liff in the forest. And when you go to school you must not say that your Uncle has come back. That is ferry important.’
Samuel leant back as far as he could on the rocking chair, supporting himself on tip-toes. ‘So . . . you want us to lie?’
Aunt Eda closed her eyes, tight, as if someone had just flicked water on her face. ‘Well, it is not really lying, it is just not telling the whole truth.’
Samuel nodded, and rocked forward on the chair. ‘Yep. Thought so. Lying.’
Aunt Eda was getting flustered. ‘No, it’s . . . could you just sit still.’
As soon as she said the word ‘sit’ in such a sharp way, a rather remarkable thing happened. Uncle Henrik dropped his chopping knife and sat down on his heels, with his hands on the floor. His tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth, and he was panting, as if doing an impression of a dog. But if it was an impression, it was a very good one, and Uncle Henrik’s eyes showed no sign of a joke. Indeed, Uncle Henrik’s eyes showed no sign of Uncle Henrik. It was as though he was in some kind of a trance and had momentarily forgotten he was a human being.
But Aunt Eda didn’t seem to look too bothered. She just rolled her eyes as if it was a perfectly normal occurrence.
‘What’s happening to Uncle Henrik?’ asked Martha, so confused that she stopped crunching on her pickle.
‘Is he all right?’ added Samuel, getting back off the rocking chair.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Aunt Eda, through a sigh. ‘He had a couple of these turns yesterday.’
‘Turns?’ said Samuel. He remembered how his mum had used to say his granddad had ‘funny turns’. But Samuel was pretty sure granddad’s variety of funny turn never involved sitting on all fours on the kitchen floor, panting like a dog.
‘Before you woke up I haff found Henrik lying in the dog basket,’ said Aunt Eda. And as she said the word ‘basket’, Uncle Henrik cocked his head to one side and gave her a look of canine bemusement, before charging through the house on all fours. Martha squealed as he nearly ran her over and Samuel jumped out of the rocking chair to get out of his way. But Uncle Henrik flew past the rocking chair and ended up in the dog basket, where he laid down. Obviously, he was rather too big for the basket, and seemed most awkward in there, with his head leaning over the side and his legs sticking out. Yet, despite his clear discomfort, he still found time to lick the back of his hands, as though they were paws needing a wash.
‘Henrik!’ shouted Aunt Eda. ‘Henrik! Snap out of it! You are not a dog! Henrik Krohg get out of that basket immediately. Henrik? Henrik? Can you hear me?’
And Samuel and Martha watched as Uncle Henrik’s eyes fluttered, as though he was waking up from a bad dream.
‘Oh,’ he said, wearily, as he pushed himself to an upright, thoroughly more human position. He blushed, as he realised Samuel and Martha were watching the whole thing. ‘It’s happened again, hasn’t it? I thought I was still a-’
‘Yes,’ said Aunt Eda, stroking his arm. ‘But don’t worry. You’re back with us now. Everything’s going to be fine. I’m sure. Yes, everything’s going to be fine.’