- The Earth Hums in B Flat
- Canongate U.S., 336 pp.
A New Nancy Drew
Early on in Mari Strachan’s debut novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat, a young girl named Catrin laments that all the good stories are set in places other than Wales. “I wish I had stories about here, and not about old England,” she cries. As a career librarian, Strachan would understand the truth behind this statement. Try to name even one contemporary novel set in Wales, and you will probably fail. But thankfully Mari Strachan has written that much-needed story about Wales, and illuminated her home country in stunning detail.
The protagonist is Gwenni, a young girl, teetering on the edge of adolescence, who has very firm ideas about herself yet finds the “adult” world strange and mysterious. The novel is told from her point of view, and what a unique and magical view it is. Among other things, Gwenni believes she can fly and, by way of introduction, we follow her on one of her nightly excursions over the town:
For a while I hovered above the town’s higgledy-piggeldy houses. They cling to their streets as if they might roll all the way down to the sea and fall in if they let go. But last night, as usual, none of them let go and I didn’t have to save anybody…I never fly far beyond the shore. If my town were a map the bay would have Here there be Monsters written on it in golden ink.
She sees faces in the flaking walls of the kitchen, fears for the soul of a matriarch’s fox fur, and interprets the ever-changing moods of the decorative beer steins on the mantle. Gwenni is a contradictory combination of fearlessness and naiveté, unable to discern the boundary between her imaginative world and the real one. In this way, she recalls such classic girl heroines as Anne of Green Gables or Jo from Little Women. But it’s her similarity with another classic heroine, Nancy Drew, which really draws readers into her world.
The novel’s plot concerns the disappearance of Ifan Evans, a deacon of the church suspected of abusing his wife. Misunderstanding the situation, Gwenni sets herself to the task of locating the missing Mr. Evans so that Mrs. Evans and her two girls will not be turned out of their house and go hungry. Armed with a notebook and pilfered photo of the man, she makes the rounds of the town and stirs up more than a few old secrets. When Ifan’s body is discovered in the local reservoir, Gwenni changes course, vowing to find clues which will lead to his murderer. Like Nancy Drew, Gwenni is determined to discover the truth at whatever cost. Readers can’t help but admire her tenacity and dedication to what seems an impossible task.
But this is not a Nancy Drew book, where the ghost turns out to be an old lady who just wants to be left alone. A disturbing undercurrent of mental illness and abuse runs throughout the novel, serving to heighten the suspense. It also deepens the reader’s understanding of Gwenni’s seemingly contradictory needs for both an elaborate alternate reality and the truth. The clues are subtle: early in the novel we read that the hands of Gwenni’s mother, Magda, are shaking as she pleads with the girl to stop “this flying nonsense.” As Strachan continues to take note of this shaking, readers begin to wonder if it is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Magda’s outbursts gain in frequency and strength throughout the novel until it becomes clear that, not only is Gwenni emotionally abused by her mother, but Magda herself is emotionally disturbed.
The reason is, of course, kept secret from Gwenni. Like the true identity of Ifan’s killer, many things are kept hidden: crushes, crimes, family histories. And this becomes quite an issue for a girl who is honest and open to a fault. In a revealing exchange with the widowed Mrs. Evans, Gwenni wishes for more transparency:
‘Nain says that even though everyone knows everyone’s secret stories, no one talks about them,’ I say. ‘So, I have to read about them on their gravestones.’
‘I don’t think you’ll find their secrets on their gravestones,’ says Mrs Evans.
‘But they’re secrets until you know them. Aren’t they? Mam won’t let us talk about any of the dead people in our family…’
Mrs Evans runs her middle finger round and round the rim of her cup. ‘Sometimes secret stories are best left alone, Gwenni,’ she says.
‘But it would be useful to know things about people so you don’t upset other people,’ I say. ‘It would be useful to know things about live people, not just dead people. Mam says I upset people by saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. I always upset her. But how do you know what’s right or wrong to say if you don’t know people’s stories?’
This plea could be read as both a young girl’s wish for the truth and a writer’s dedication to the craft. Stories, whether they are written on gravestones, in family bibles, or in books, bring to life a world which would otherwise be lost, just as Mari Strachan has preserved small town Welsh life in the mid-20th century.
The descriptive details—the kettle boiling on the coals, the disastrous bus trip to a church event, the sheep farms—have the ring of truth. Even the sections where Gwenni retreats into her alternate universe seem mostly plausible. After all, inanimate objects such as dolls and stuffed animals regularly come to life in our stories, television shows, and movies. The one false motif, which smacks of sentimentality rather than veracity, is the Earth’s hum, which Gwenni claims to hear, and from which the novel gets its name. It appears sporadically throughout, even closing the novel with the following passage: “This map is beautiful and when Tada works out how to write the Earth’s hum into it, it will be perfect.” This motif does not seem to connect or respond to the plot in any way, and felt like an afterthought rather than an organic element. Perhaps it refers to a part of Welsh culture of which I am unaware. Or perhaps it was, in fact, added in to make the book palatable to a younger audience, though it would easily fit into a middle-school curriculum and is much more aesthetically pleasing than Bette Greene’s classic child abuse tale, Summer of My German Soldier.
I would suggest that the book doesn’t need, and only suffers from, this false sentimentality. Gwenni herself is more “spice” than “sugar”, and her story stands, strong and sturdy, without it. And why wouldn’t it? The book packs quite a lot into its 300 pages: a strong heroine, a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a fairy tale, an honest and haunting description of child abuse, and an introduction to a new, fascinating culture. What more could you want?