Monday, April 20, 2009

The Earth Hums in B Flat
By Mari Strachan
Text Publishing, $37
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Dark family secrets are at the core of this bewitching debut novel set in a small village in 1950s Wales. It’s the story of Gwenni Morgan an odd girl caught up in her fantasy life. In her sleep Gwenni flies around her neighbourhood and during the day she sees faces in the rough distemper on the walls and imagines the Toby jugs up on the shelf are alive. She even hears the earth sing.
But Gwenni’s mother Magda is fearful of these little eccentricities, squashing any sign of them, concerned that people might find her daughter strange. And then a local man Ifan Evans is murdered and Magda slides into strangeness herself, swallowing pills and battling her nerves. Detective-story obsessed Gwenni doesn’t help matters, becoming fascinated by the mystery of the murdered Ifan as well as her own family’s badly kept secrets, with dramatic consequences for all.
Since the story is told entirely by Gwenni, we see everything from her naïve and imaginative point of view and, just as she does, have to guess at what the grown-ups aren’t telling. The reader, of course, knows a lot more about the dark sides of life, we are much more suspicious and untrusting. But Strachan does a masterful job of allowing us to experience the world as innocently as Gwenni does.
This is a story about a time and a girl on the brink of change and Strachen tells it with a fey sort of charm as well as a sense of forboding. She brings the period alive with light use of detail, such as descriptions of the terrible food Gwenni is forced to eat, the faggots, the gravy covered in rippling skin, the gristly lamb and pellets of mince that look like rabbit droppings.
Then there’s the all-pervading influence of Chapel, the small-town gossip and petty hatreds, the shifting friendships and the stigma of mental illness. And the secrets, of course, that every family has as Gwenni’s grandmother tells her. “Big secrets, small secrets, silly secrets, bad things we want to hide”.
There’s a lot going on in this novel but it’s a complicated story simply told. Strachan manages to convey a real sense of a small Welsh community without clogging the story with endless idiom, or even more daunting, Welsh language. Although it deals with the dark themes of depression and madness, The Earth Hums in B Flat is often comic largely thanks to Gwenni’s offbeat interpretation of all that goes on around her. This is a memorable read.
Reviewer Nicky Pellegrino is Books Editor at the Herald on Sunday where this review was first published. She is also a successful novelist, her latest title, The Italian Wedding, having been published earlier this month by Orion.

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