read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

The Earth Hums in B Flat

I'm fairly certain that the first (and maybe only) place I read about The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan was on another book blog. I got as far as 'Gwenni flies in her sleep' in the review, checked the book out on Amazon, and ordered it. Such is the power of blogging.

The story is set in an isolated village in Wales in the 1950s. Young Gwenni lives with her mother and father and sister, Bethan, a family that is not really a family at all. Gwenni is very close to her father 'Tada', but is heartily disliked by her mother and older sister. Why? Well, Gwenni is very definitely 'different'. At night, when asleep, she can fly and she can also see things that others don't; Toby jugs on the shelf reacting to events in the house; a fox-fur blinking at her in church; moving faces in the peeling paintwork in the kitchen. Gwenni's mother calls her odd and is constantly afraid of what the neighbours will think of her strange daughter who loves to read and write stories.

Luckily, Gwenni herself is not isolated. Apart from her father she also gets on well with 'Nain' - her grandmother, Mrs. Evans, an educated woman who lends her books, and her best friend and soulmate, Alwenna. But there's a growing problem. Alwenna is older than Gwenni and has just discovered boys: she is beginning not to have any time for Gwenni.

The story really begins when Gwenni is out flying one night and sees the dead body of Ifan Evans floating in the reservoir. She prays it isn't true, that she has dreamt it. When she visits the Evans family the next day and finds Mrs. Evans's face is bleeding, and her husband missing, she assumes - and hopes - that a visit to the dentist has caused the damage. Gwenni sets about trying to find the missing husband. He's known as a bit of a brute and a womaniser and innocent Gwenni starts to discover things she wishes she'd hadn't. When the dead body of Ifan Evans actually does turn up the life of the village is turned upside down. Gwenni's family has secrets and these secrets seem to involve her mentally ailing mother... and possibly the dead man. Is Gwenni going to have do as Alwenna instructs and 'grow up' fast?

Well, obviously I don't know anything about 1950s Wales but I do remember late 1950s and early 1960s Cornwall and, to tell the truth, there isn't much difference. Penzance was a different place to rural Wales but attitudes were very similar. All working class families back then had their little secrets and I have to admit to doing just what Gwenni did and lurking quietly so that the adults forgot I was there. Amazing what you learnt as they chatted on, oblivious. I felt like I knew the Morgan family intimately, possibly because I identified so strongly with the stultified, claustrophobic atmosphere of that time; behaviour was strictly regulated and 'shame' was a big factor in keeping people in their place. Although, it was interesting to note, that ten years later, in the early sixties, church or chapel was less of a feature in people's lives and less of a regulating influence.

Gwenni is somewhat the Welsh equivalent of Mattie Gokey from A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. She's intelligent, full of curiosity, bookish. She's also, like Mattie, an unlikely candidate for further education simply because of her poor background. I felt for Gwenni just as I felt for Mattie - horribly sad for her prospects and angry and annoyed at the adults who try to thwart her ambition or squash her personality.

In this book the reader is in that odd situation where he or she knows more about what's going on than Gwenni. She's not mature enough to understand much of what she discovers, or has hinted to her, but the reader of course is and can see much of the calamity coming. That's not to say that the reader knows everything, of course, and things happen which take you by surprise. But really the joy of this book is in the world building, in following traumatic village events as they unfold - the story is told in the present tense - and in the fact that you really do care about the people in it, even the unpleasant ones. No mean achievement on the part of Mari Strachan; she has produced a page-turner for her first book - I gather it was a BBC4 'Book at Bedtime' at some stage - and I sincerely hope there will be a lot more from her.
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