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.
Dozens of other bloggers have already read The Earth Hums in B Flat, so there are reviews to read everywhere. Do make sure you head over to Lizzy Siddal's blog, though, and read a wonderful live chat with Strachan - I just have, and it's incredibly interesting. If you've already read The Earth Hums in B Flat, do tell me what you thought - and let me recommend that you immediately go onto Angela Young's Speaking of Love. These wonderful novels are from the same stable, both with subtly excellent prose writers at their helm.