Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Book Review: The Earth Hums in B Flat

Young Gwenni Morgan has a gift. She can fly in her sleep. She’s also fond of strawberry whip, detective stories and asking difficult questions. When a neighbour mysteriously vanishes, she resolves to uncover the secret of his disappearance and return him to his children. She truthfully records what she sees and hears: but are her deductions correct? What is the real truth? And what will be the consequences – for Gwenni, her family and her community – of finding it out? Gwenni Morgan is an unforgettable creation, and this portrait of life in a small Welsh town on the brink of change in the 1950s is enthralling, moving and utterly real. Mari Strachan’s debut is a magical novel that will transport you to another time and place.
I am not known for having my finger on the pulse of book releases, but even so I can’t quite believe that The Earth Hums in B Flat has been out since 2009 and I’ve only just discovered it!

Set in a small Welsh town in the 1950s, the story is told through the eyes of Gwenni, a twelve year old girl who is blessed with a vivid imagination (or cursed, if you were to ask her Mam).
“[…] the mantelpiece’s clock’s tick-tock is loud. I look up at the clock and see the Toby jugs almost falling off their shelf as they strain to watch and listen. They’re straining so hard their faces are crimson.
It is these flights of fancy that leave the community smiling gently and calling Gwenni “quaint”. Her Mam, on the other hand grimly says that, “they say quaint, but what they mean is ‘odd’.” She constantly berates Gwenni to act like her sister and stop being so childish.
Like all small towns and villages, everyone knows everyone’s business but no one ever says a thing. There are dark secrets hiding behind closed doors and it takes a neighbour’s disappearance to bring them into the light.  Gwenni observes everything that goes on, but her understanding is that of a twelve year-old—just on the brink of adult understanding, but still prone to childish interpretations. When she arrives at Mrs Evans house, whose girls she is to babysit while Mrs Evans is at the dentists, and finds her at the door with a swollen cheek, she immediately assumes that she’s late and that Mrs Evans has already been to the dentist. (And had a bad time of it, from the looks of things.) As adults, we understand what has happened, but Gwenni takes it all on face value.
When Ifan Evans turns up dead, Gwenni decides to find out what happened, just like the detective in the mystery books she loves to read. This could easily have turned into a Welsh version of Nancy Drew but Gwenni’s bumbling yet well-meaning investigation is far more real than anything Carolyn Keene ever dreamt up.
While Gwenni’s detective efforts move the story forward, the main focus of the book is on Gwenni and her close family: Gwenni the dreamer, Bethan her constantly irritated older sister, her mercurial Mam, and her father, Tada, who surely has the patience of a saint. There is a lot that should be said about this family, but I don’t want to give too much away on that front.
We also have a thread running through the story about growing up. I wouldn’t call this a “coming of age” book, but as the story unfolds we can see Gwenni’s childish innocence giving way to a dawning understanding of some adult topics. Her best friend Alwenna has just discovered boys and refuses to play childish games with Gwenni anymore which leaves Gwenni feeling somewhat alienated and clinging to her childhood more so than ever. She quite deliberately doesn’t want to grow up, but we see her weakening to the inevitable onset of puberty as the book comes to a close.
The Earth Hums in B Flat is a book which deals with dark subjects in a very deft manner. Gwenni’s innocent eyes soften the blow of the revelations which unfold in the narrative and the well-drawn characters make the book sparkle. It’s very much the sort of book that you become immersed in, taken back to a time when having a TV was a rare privilege and shared baths in front of the fire were commonplace; you’ll lose yourself in the character of Gwenni and love her.
I adored The Earth Hums in B Flat and would give it 5/5.
This review originally appeared on the much-missed Me, Bookshelf and I blog.  As I re-read the book recently I thought I’d dust off the review!

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