Saturday, 17 April 2010

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 Elaine's blog - Random Jottings. And I actually haven't read her entire review at all. I got as far as 'Gwenni flies in her sleep', checked it 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.


Caitlin said...

This sounds wonderful - I have to go see if my library has it. What a great review and what a beautiful book cover!

Annie Joy said...

I have placed holds for both of these titles at my library and should have them within a week. Thank you for the reviews; I look forward to reading them. Annie Joy

Danielle said...

Isn't it funny how often you only need to read a line or two of what someone has written about a book to know you have to read it, too?! I like the sound of this--sort of fairy tale-ish--I'll have to keep any eye out for it.

BooksPlease said...

This is one of the choices of a free book in newbooks magazine and it appeals to me - I'll be writing about it tomorrow - what a coincidence!

DesLily said...

well it sounds like you just ate this one up!! I need so much to find my way back to that feeling.. it's so hard to say that I am enjoying what i'm reading but it matters not how long it takes me to read it, unlike the ones we can't put down for more then 5 minutes lol..

great title of a book too!

Kailana said...

lol. You know why you put it on hold? I just put it on hold for the same reason!

Cath said...

Caitlin: The cover is lovely isn't it. I think that was part of the reason I was attracted to it to be honest. I hope your library has it.

Annie Joy: Hello, thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the review. By 'both of these titles' I assume you mean A Northern Light as well. That one was my book of the year last year; it's wonderful and I hope you like it - and The earth Hums in B Flat - as much as I did.

Danielle: I think you especially would really love this book. And yes, it's very odd the way you sometimes know, within a line or two of starting to read a review, that you *have* to read the book. It happens to me quite a lot.

Margaret: How strange. I think this one would appeal to you. Look forward to your post about it.

Hi Pat! Yep, I floated through this one, not wanting to put it down and eager to pick it up again if I had to. It was sad in places but also inspiring.

Sorry you're still in a reading lull. Do you have Temeraire by Naomi Novik? I had a feeling that you did... I'm reading that at the moment and loving it. Was thinking it might appeal to you quite a bit. I could see a certain Mr. Urban playing Laurence in a movie. ;-)

LOL, Kelly!!! It's clearly not just me that's crazy then... ;-P

verity said...

This is such a wonderful review! I read it last week too and will be writing aboutit soon.

Cath said...

Verity: Excellent! Can't wait to read your views on this book. I'll keep an eye out - I do actually 'follow' your 'B' blog but perhaps you'll twitter about the post so I can be sure not to miss it?