What the blogs say about
The Earth Hums in B Flat
With many thanks to all you lovely bloggers ...
September 2011 - from Stuck in a Book
A long time ago (17th July 2009, to be precise) I got a copy of Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B Flat through the Amazon Vine reviewers programme. Subsequently I sat next to Strachan's editor somewhere, I believe, and was able to say "Oh, I already have a copy, thanks" - but it has taken me over two years to actually read the novel, having persuaded my book group to read it along with me after my housemate Mel loved it. I finished the book approximately five minutes before book group started, and I've just come home from the discussion.
It's times like this that I wonder how many hidden gems are lurking on my bookshelves already - because The Earth Hums in B Flat is really, really good.
Strachan's novel is set in a small town in 1950s North Wales, where 12 year old Gwenni Morgan and her family live. The typical atmosphere of a close-knit community pervades - everybody knows everybody else, and there is no chance of keeping secrets for long, yet there is far greater intimacy and neighbourly care than would be possible in a city. If the reader isn't always immediately 'in on' the whispered secrets, it's because we see the world through the naive, slightly unworldly eyes of Gwenni herself. Here's how she opens the novel: I fly in my sleep every night. When I was little I could fly without being asleep; now I can't, even though I practise and practise. And after what I saw last night I want more than ever to fly wide-awake. Mam always says: I want never gets. Is that true?Mari Strachan has said that her starting point for the novel was the image of a girl sitting in hair, struggling to fly. Gwenni's flying isn't the start of a fantasy novel, nor does it play a huge role - other than setting the tone. The reader doesn't know whether to believe her or not - or how seriously she believes what she says. While she's up there, flying, she sees the whole earth and can hear it humming - in, you guessed it, B flat. I like the title. The earth's humming isn't integral to the novel, but it gives the reader the right sense - of an ethereal girl, with a big imagination.
The events of the novel, through less hazy eyes, could border on gritty. Running like a thread through The Earth Hums in B Flat is a murder investigation - but this is nothing like Christie or Sayers or - Heaven forbid - Rankin, Brown, Larsson etc. The investigation lends momentum and a puzzle to the novel, but the more significant focus is upon the Morgan family - Gwenni, her irritable older sister Bethan, her tempestuous mother 'Mam' and incredibly patient father 'Tada' - not to mention an assortment of relatives and neighbours. This is definitely a novel about a community.
Gwenni's mother is almost an ogress, but not quite - because she is believable. She openly favours Bethan over Gwenni, constantly treating the latter to sharp words and angry looks. She accepts her husband's endlessly patient adoration without even seeming to notice it - and then shouting at him for some imagined misdemeanour. Her behaviour is gradually explained... but to understand is not always to forgive, and I found her a very difficult character to love. Which is presumably what I was intended to feel.
Gwenni, on the other hand, is easy to feel affection towards. She accepts everything at face value, even while believing herself to be a competent detective figure. She is somehow both dreamy and determined, unable to make sense of the people and events around her: the reader peers over her shoulder, detecting answers before Gwenni does, and wondering anxiously when she'll catch up. Here's a quick snippet of her thoughts, which constantly frame the narrative: Alwenna says that Mr. Williams winds his wife up every morning; she says you can tell by the way Mrs. Williams talks more slowly in the afternoons and has nothing at all to say by evening. When I told Mam she said: Don't be silly, Gwenni.
I'm a big believer that style is the most important part of a work of fiction, ahead of character and a long way ahead of plot. For a first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat is remarkable on this front. Gwenni's voice is utterly credible, and never irritating. It doesn't feel as though an adult writer has 'written down' to a child's perspective - it simply feels like a child's perspective. Strachan doesn't overwrite anything, but is subtle and consistent. There are plenty of plot twists along the way, but they are never jerky - things slowly dawn on Gwenni, or are even never quite vocalised. Strachan's prose is deceptively simple - for this is actually a very complex novel, as we all gradually realised as the book group discussion unfolded. Just the sort of thing I love.
Oh, and I love the cover on my edition (pictured) with Bruno Ehrs' photograph - much more than the more recent edition, which most people had at book group.
July 2009 - from Mrs Bramley
i've not been reading much of late, and especially not much crime fiction. but a holiday in the beautiful castle north wales coastal town of harlech has revived my reading AND crime fiction love. and here's what i've been reading...
...it's not really a crime novel per se but has a heavy link with both my holiday and crime fiction. "the earth hums in b flat" by mari strachan is pretty much set in harlech, from the detective work me and wife did during the last week (some of the locations match completely and the whole post office selling signed copies with the subtitle "local author" pretty much gave it away), and is that rare thing: a coming of age book that WORKS. the heroine is a slightly dreamy 13 year old girl, not really able to connect with her parents and peers, a bit lonely and a bit special. but she's also tremendously likeable as a heroine and a joy as a central character. she's also a bit of a crime fiction addict, with her eccentric aunt forever dropping off campion novels which gwenni in turn lends to the local police officer. there's a sort of crime at the heart of the book, with a brilliant, cunning solution (cunning especially in it's neat simplicity), an event whose repurcussions are felt throughout. so although it's not a crime novel as such, there's a lot that the average crime fiction fan will find very appealing. irrespective of that, it's also quite utterly the best book i've read all year and doubt that anything else will come near it. a beautifully written, loving, witty, moving and joyful book. the best way to describe it is sort of "the wasp factory" but without the slightly adolescent obsessions that hampers that book. a stunning thing to treasure. highly recommended.
July 2009 - from Ladylip
This novel is delightful (I hardly ever use this adjective, but it’s just so fitting). The lead character, Gwenni, is so adorable and charming, that I swear, if she was living in my town, I would file adoption papers on the spot (and I don’t want any more kids). She has a sense of innocence even younger than her age, while at the same time, a sense of awareness and maturity that even many adults don’t possess. Her curiosity, imagination, forgiveness and love for life invite you to follow along with her in her quest for the truth.
May 2009 - from Chesilbeach
Gwenni Morgan is growing up in a 1950s Welsh town, and she has a special gift – she can fly in her sleep. She flies over the town, occasionally over the sea, and watches the world from above – at least, that’s when her sister isn’t disturbing her sleep by invading Gwenni’s side of the bed. This gift makes Gwenni inquisitive, and when a neighbour disappears, she’s determined to help bring him back to his family. But what else will she uncover along the way?
On the inside cover, this is described as “a magical novel that will transport you to another time and place”, and I have to agree – it is a magical book and as you experience the story through Gwenni’s first person narrative, you will indeed feel transported to the small town Welsh community and into the Morgan’s family home. Gwenni’s naivety means that while she doesn’t initially comprehend the significance of her observations, as a reader I was one or two steps ahead of her and able to piece together the truth for myself; this does not, however, take away anything from the reading experience and enjoyment of the book.
I really loved the brevity of the writing. That’s not to say it’s a short book, or has a sparse style, but Strachan doesn’t describe any of the characters in much detail, and yet the brief glimpses of physical features make all the people feel very real and genuine, and I had a vivid picture of each of them in my head. The details of the period are also only ever hinted at, with occasional vague references or gently interlaced details of the time, but there is never a specific description of the setting, merely enough to give a feeling of the period.
I became completely engrossed in Gwenni’s life and her journey to understanding her own family as well as the world around her. There is no sentimentality or mawkishness about this tale, merely lovely, and at times, moving, storytelling.
April 2009 - from Itsacrime
The Earth Hums in B Flat is the tale of 12.5 year old Gwenni Morgan's coming of age in a small and close community in north Wales in the 1950s. But it's more than that too. It involves some detection, as Gwenni wants to be a detective when she grows up and she loves detective fiction. Her home town proves to be fertile ground when Ifan Evans goes missing, later to be found, dead, near the reservoir and Baptism Pool. Her life is not easy as her "Mam" suffers from "nerves" - possibly inherited - and Mam favours her elder daughter Bethan over Gwenni, every time. Gwenni's view on life and investigations are cut through with an innocence and the naivety of someone younger and that is my only small criticism. But I arrived at the 12.5 years of age almost, possibly up to twenty years later, so perhaps I am wrong with this thought.
What I will say with assurance - and I make no apologies for being so effusive here - Mari Strachan has, with The Earth Hums in B Flat, created a perfect evocation of Welsh life for that time. There is sense of constant worry about what the neighbours might think and being on best behaviour. There are the dressed-up-in-Sunday-best trips to chapel and later, afternoon Sunday School for the children. (In the novel the children delightfully get away with far more unruly behaviour than we did in mine in the 60s.) There are the chapel-organised cultural outings with transport by charabanc. The names are spot on, including the link to occupation, characteristic or status: Mad Huw; Sergeant Jones and Mrs Sergeant Jones; Nanw Lipstick; Mrs Davies Chapel House; The Voice of God; Jones the Butcher. (Where I came from we had Batty Bevan, Dunning the Milk and Adams the Coal...) There is the worry and avoidance of things unknown or misunderstood, particularly in the context of mental health issues. There is the ritual of Sunday lunches: always a roast and often followed by a rice pudding (which needs to be thick and not watery). There is the closeness of local community, but above all, the closeness and loyalty of family. There is the aspiration of having a decent kitchen and bathroom indoors, something my own parents had achieved by the time I came along, although I do possess a picture of me in a tin bath, as a baby.
For me, this novel became personal and evoked a lot of wonderful and warm memories, after loosing both my parents in 2007. For that I thank the author, Mari Strachan, who has done Wales and the Welsh proud with this novel. Scottish publisher Canongate also deserve a hat tip; they know a good novel when they read one.
It is Gwenni's naivety that leads her into uncovering the secrets of her own family as she investigates what happened to Ifan Evans (and becomes one of the very few to learn the truth of his fate). Gwenni is easy to love; she's a feisty Welsh child who will grow into a strong Welsh woman. For those with a vested interest, as I have, this will prove a book to treasure. If you'd like to experience a slice of Welsh life circa the late 1950s, then this is a book for you. If you enjoy a mystery, with a dark undercurrent - it's not all daffs in Wales, you know - then you'll enjoy this novel. I simply urge you to read The Earth Hums in B Flat.
Books and reading feature prominently in this novel, which is also reflective of the time. In Wales, education was seen as the route of advancement and reading was encouraged. Last year, after about 30 years I bumped into an old school friend in my local M&S. She said to me "You always had a book in your hand" and before I could get in a reply she added, "And I was the gobby one." That's Wales and the Welsh for you.
Mari Strachan is appearing at the Hay Festival in the last week of May. I met her briefly at Laugharne the other weekend and hope to meet her again to discuss the book, now that I've read it. Get there if you can and do give The Earth Hums in B Flat a try. Reading it was one of the most enjoyable and enriching experiences I've had in a few years. Thank you for the memories, Mari!
March 2009 - from Trashionista
Sometimes a book comes along that is so magical, and so effortlessly transports you away from the everyday, that when you turn the last page you somehow feel bereft. This is how I felt about Mari Strachan's debut novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat.
It tells the tale of Gwenni, a twelve year-old Welsh girl growing up in the 1950s. Gwenni reads voraciously, can fly in her sleep, and sees the Toby jugs in her dining room come alive; "Their fat cheeks turn redder and redder and their eyes grow darker and darker.
"None of these traits endear Gwenni to her mother - she's always telling Gwenni not to be silly for fear of people thinking she's odd. And that's on a good day - on a bad day her mother will scream and cry and tell Gwenni she wishes she'd never been born.
When a local man goes missing, Gwenni follows a series of clues: blood on the kitchen floor, the testimony of the man's children who say a black dog was with him, and the "spirit" she saw floating in the Baptism Pool one night when she was flying above the town.
Armed with the skills she's picked up from her detective books, Gwenni decides to investigate. But she starts unknowingly to unravel the long-guarded family secrets. And the truth will change her life forever.
This is a glorious, totally immersive novel, written convincingly from a wide-eyed child's point of view. Gwenni observes but doesn't understand the subtle shifts that are taking place around her, and draws the sort of conclusions that will feel familiar to anyone who was puzzled by adults' behaviour when they were children.
Altogether it's an absolutely compelling read. I can't wait for Mari Strachan's next one!
The Earth Hums in B Flat published by Canongate gets the spotlight today as young Gwenni Morgan tries to make sense of her family and her life in small-town Wales in the 1950s.
Gwenni feels blessed by the gift of flight in her sleep, a gift which her family view more as a curse that will single her out as 'odd' rather than a childhood fantasy to be acknowledged. With a child's innocence and understanding Gwenni sees much that others may miss but likewise misinterprets what she sees too, taking things as children are wont to do at face value.
Gwenni's is a family rent asunder by the understated horrors of war and the stigma of mental illness with the aftermath passing from one generation to the next. Played out within the confines of a small and knowing community where gossip is the currency of division and hatred poor Gwenni has an uphill climb to the truth. Slowly, as the lies and secrets prevail, the book builds towards the revelations for Gwenni and her older sister Bethan which, though we as adults may have more or less gleaned, still retain the power to shock and silence as the full and ongoing implications dawn.
It's the characters who have lingered on in my mind, not only Gwenni but her long-suffering, loving and loyal father and the mother who hates her with a venom that it's hard to imagine, yet somehow, in the careful and sensitive hands of Mari Strachan, I came to understand it all as I turned the final page.
Mari Strachan has written a beautiful and I hate to tell you but unmissable book (sorry, the tbr piles must be teetering already and it's only March) especially if you enjoy a compelling and perfectly wrought child's narrative voice.
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