Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Earth Hums in B Flat
by Mari Strachan
30 March 2009, Paperback , 304 pages, ISBN-13: 9781921520198, rrp$32.95aud
The Earth Hums in B Flat is one of those books that eases you in gently and then floors you. It is written in the first person confessional, almost diary style musings of twelve year old Gwenni Morgan. The reader is put in the uncomfortable role of Gwenni’s confidante. Twelve is such a rich age to work with that I wonder why more writers don’t have twelve year old protagonists. It’s that age where a person is still very much a child, and yet also able to think and perceive as an adult. Gwenni has a foot in both camps. She knows, understands and perceives the adult world as an equal, but is also still able to see with the wonder and perceptions of a little girl. But she’s no ordinary 12 year old. She has the difficulty and insight that comes with an unhappy household and a sense of her own magic. This makes her a notable protagonist, and her journey in The Earth Hums in B Flat is a powerful one.
Gwenni is particularly perceptive, with an observant poetic eye for the world around her. Strachan helps us to understand this, not only through Gwenni’s own musings, but through the way others around her react to her. The setting of the book is a conservative small town in 1950s Wales. Strachan manages the setting perfectly, allowing us to feel comfortable in this technology-free world where kettles are heated on a wood fire and then used to fill a shared bathtub, jam is made on the stovetop, and social life centres around church. People say too much that doesn’t matter, and not enough that does, and it takes the deep contemplation of a thoughtful child to uncover the truths that lie behind family cover ups and secret whisperings.
Gwenni’s mother doesn’t find much charm in Gwenni’s ability to fly, or her introspective, poetic curiosity about the world around her. Gwenni doesn’t ever criticise her mother, but between Magda Morgan’s nervous condition, her own family secrets, and her overt disdain for her own family and domestic situation, she is the most disagreeable character in this novel – the key antagonist. Ifan Evans, whose children Gwenni babysits for, is also disagreeable, and made more so by Gwenni’s mother’s adoration, but Ifan’s wife Elin Evans is kind and thoughtful. Mrs Evans has a sense of Gwenni’s intelligence that her own mother misses. When Ifan goes missing, Gwenni takes it upon herself to find out what happened and help Mrs Evans, and the story rapidly changes from charming pastoral to murder mystery. With Gwenni in the role of amateur sleuth, she takes to the streets with notebook, photo and pen, ignoring her mother’s condemnation in her quest for the truth. Throughout Gwenni’s subtle coming-of-age, her voice never falters, and her discovery of the truth comes alongside other grown up discoveries, such as the loss of her best friend Alwenna, who has developed an interest in boys and makeup, a growing sense of other people’s deep and intractable pain, and her own family secrets which she slowly uncovers.
Though other characters such as Bethan, Gwenni’s sister, the mentally disabled Guto, Gwenni’s kind father “Tada”, Mrs Llywelyn Pugh with her staring fox stole, and the kindly Sargeant Jones, all play important roles in this novel, and shine with a kind of Dickensian charm, it is Gwenni that the reader focuses on. The story pivots around her, and her world is so rich and delicate that the reader hopes it won’t fade with adulthood, even, perhaps as we are reminded of our own youthful selves and visions:
Look how lush the grass is and how high the hedgerows are all around. Already the butterflies flit around honeysuckle that’s still in bud and blossom foams like seaspray on the hawthorn. Don’t take flowers into your house or your mother will die. I once picked Mam a posy of windflowers with petals as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and she snatched the flowers from me and threw them out into the road where they lay for days, dying, until the wind took them. She said I wanted her to die. That was before Dr. Edwards gave her tablets to make her happy. Sometimes when I’m flying, out of the corner of my eye I see the white petals blowing across the moon or floating out to sea. (187)
There’s a linguistic richness throughout the book that is both intensely detailed, and full of the daily life of this Welsh village with all of its idiosyncrasies. Gwenni’s mind is fast thinking and she doesn’t miss much, but she also sees beyond the surface of things. The reader is always shown, rather than told, what Gwenni feels, as she submerges her emotions into the faces in the peeling distemper on the walls, or the Toby Jugs on the shelves. The Earth Hums in B Flat reads authentically, and the fictive truth in the story remains consistent and powerful as Gwenni moves towards the end along with the reader. This is a lovely, original and imaginative debut novel.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks.