The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
|The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan|
|Genre: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: Growing up among family secrets in Wales in the late 1950's comes alive in this Dylan Thomas-meets-Nina Bawden five star read. Book groups should definitely browse this wise and accessible book.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 330||Date: May 2010|
|Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd|
And now, here is a second paperback edition of one of 2009's most promising new writers, Mari Strachan. With a quirky title like The Earth Hums in B Flat, I knew I'd enjoy whatever came next ... and I did!
Choosing a child as the viewpoint character of a novel requires confidence and imagination. To succeed is to convince the reader of events at two levels – the child's world within the adult world surrounding her. The very best novels about childhood, like say Harper Lee's classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, also reflect a wider cultural truth. In The Earth Hums in B Flat, a claustrophobic Welsh village is both protection and straitjacket as the characters struggle to cope with their family secrets. If that sounds a bit tacky, fear not, because the viewpoint character, Gwenni, is all whippet and sharp corners.
I fell in love with Gwenni Morgan. I picture her as spiky, thin and grubby, with the musty smell of a Welsh two-up, two-down cottage about her. She's biddable and practical: essential to survive family life with her mother, who constantly uses her for domestic tasks and errands. So Gwenni has developed an imaginative world to compensate for her bare home environment. Faces people the peeling distemper on the scullery wall. Gwen sympathises with the life she senses in the beady eyes of a neighbour's fox fur stole. To her mother's horror, Gwenni seems quite fuzzy about the distinction between imagination and reality. We're never quite sure if Gwenni knows she is kidding herself or not, when she talks about flying again as she did as a young child. Gwenni is affectionately labelled by the community as eccentric, and you quickly see why.
Although a vivid imagination gets her into all sorts of trouble, Gwenni's teachers react positively to her intelligence and creativity; their recognition of her promise provides the possibility of an escape route. Can she evade the straitjacket of narrow-mindedness and draw support from the community's tolerance of difference and weakness? By the end of the book, I just so wanted her to grow up a survivor, rather than the drowned victim of her family environment and genes.
In the child's world, whatever happens, family norms are accepted without question. So our knowledge of events is filtered through Gwenni's eyes and it's only gradually that we discover how far her mother is from normality. In those days, care in the community meant putting up with mental illness until the family could cope no longer, when the 'doolally' person was sectioned into an 'asylum'. With mood-altering drugs in their infancy, and primitive electrical shock treatments as the only therapies available, this was a daunting prospect for anyone with an inherited mental illness to face. No wonder Gwenni's mother and sister put up barriers of denial, no wonder they react badly. Gwenni and her sister Bethan suffer, as her father, Tada, struggles to protect family life while 'nerves' take over her Mam's waking hours. Suddenly it's clear how waves crashing through a narrow-minded family in the crisis of mental illness reverberate down through the next generation. When I finished the book, I worried that Gwenni would suffer the same fate as her mother. The creative ability to hear the earth hum in B flat comes at a price, as Mari Strachan points out.
This is a wonderfully drawn picture of a child at puberty, with a Jacqui Wilsonesque authenticity to the characterization of Gwenni, Bethan and their friends. Gwenni still sees the world with the acuity of childhood but completely misses the signals that her more sexually mature peers send out. The Sunday school and Chapel scenes, the school gossip and Gwenni's first period are just brilliantly observed and evoked. So too is the dramatic irony, when Gwenni, the amateur detective, unwittingly shops her friend, Mrs Evans, to the police, and all the ramifications this reveals to the adults who listen to her story.
Tada is another superb character, with sensory details like his smell lovingly provided to authenticise the late 50's/early 60's period. He felt like one of the working men I knew in my childhood. Like so many men, Tada consistently bows to the inevitable for a quiet life; he's a born peacemaker and protector of the underdog. Interestingly, it's probably his unquestioning acquiescence, his tolerance and understanding of his wife and daughters' behaviour that finally pushes Magda Morgan over the edge.
Sensory details light up the writing. I thought when I started reading that the beginning was a pastiche of Under Milk Wood. After a while, though, I was delighted to see that the author was pushing Dylan Thomas' images onward. Toby Jugs, for example, personify a Greek chorus, who in commenting on the scene below, reinforce the narrow-mindedness of the community. I also particularly loved the way we are suddenly reminded that the characters' first language is Welsh, and the barriers such exclusivity creates. Again, the strength of the writing lay in the showing, not telling.
Although some reviewers have called this a detective novel, I wouldn't! It's literary, teenage and general fiction, accessible to all. A book with enduring appeal to so many readers deserves to be very popular indeed.
Many thanks to Canongate for sending the best book I've read so far this year.
Suggestions for further reading:
If you enjoyed this book, I think you might also enjoy Jacqueline Walker's memoir of a Jamaican childhood in London around the same time, Pilgrim State, or Agnes Owens' Scottish slant to The Complete Novellas. For more Welsh tales, try Cut on the Bias, edited by Stephanie Tillotson.
The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.
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