Saturday, July 25, 2009
Earth Hums in B Flat
The Earth Hums in B Flat / Mari Strachan
Edinburgh: Canongate, c2009.
Look at this book. Could you resist it? The title, the cover image, even the font, all conspired to make this a must read for me, even without taking into account the story. And it was the story which first made me search this one out, after hearing about it on various blogs. Besides, it was written by a librarian, so automatically I had to look into it! :)
It's set in Wales, which is a place I haven't really read that much about, compared to the other UK countries. It tells us the story of 12 year old Gwenni Morgan, who is a "quaint" child in the eyes of her village (though her mother tells her it means they think she's odd). She does seem a little odd; she is convinced she can fly, and by repeatedly saying so it becomes a sore point in her family. She is certain she sees faces in the distemper on the pantry walls, the Toby jugs on the shelf have personality, and when she sees a rich woman wearing a fox stole she is saddened and wants to bury it to free the fox's spirit. She also sees a lot of what goes on in the village, without necessarily understanding it -- she's a 12 yr old who is desperately trying not to grow up. Her best friend Alwenna (whose mother is the town gossip) turns on Gwenni and announces she will no longer be her best friend; Alwenna is now too interested in boys to bother with Gwenni's childish antics.
Despite all this, Gwenni is an appealing narrator. She is uncertain about the greater world, but determined to hold on to what she believes, no small feat in the face of her cruel mother (taunting her with her unwantedness) as well as Alwenna telling her she is as doo-lally as the rest of her family. As Gwenni finds out more about the realities of village life, including the mystery of what has happened to a missing shepherd, she pushes away understanding, not wanting to leave her imaginary world to face up to the miseries of adult life. And as we learn more about her family background and the mental illness that has been passed down from mother to daughter, we begin to wonder if Gwenni herself is simply an imaginative child or if she is exhibiting signs of a genetic malady. I've seen this book described in a couple of places as a mystery, but I don't think it fits in to that genre at all. There is indeed a mysterious death at the beginning, and Gwenni tries to find out what has occurred, but she is not simply an amateur sleuth, and that event is not the main story, to my mind. It's a tale of her search for family secrets, and an enquiry into her place both within the family and within the village. Sadness, secrets, misery, adultery, madness, cruelty; all these play a part in Gwenni's family -- and yet, she is resilient and unbowed, thanks mainly to the support and love from her father (her Tada) and her paternal grandmother. Her oddities make for amusing moments in the story, and create a memorable and original character. However, it's the secrets she discovers and decides to keep at the end of the story which point out that she is, after all, growing up. To remain creative and fanciful and yet not mired in her odd convictions is the balance she will have to strike in order to avoid being subsumed by the family heritage of mental illness. This is a strangely dark yet hopeful book, and is told quite beautifully and engagingly.
An interesting fact: when Gwenni is flying, she says she hears the hum the Earth makes, and when she hums that sound to her school music teacher he tells her it is a B Flat. Gwenni may just have been right -- was she really flying? The Chandra X-Ray Observatory found that a black hole in the Perseus cluster does indeed emanate sound waves which correlate to B Flat. Is the music of the spheres a symphony in B Flat? (and B Flat has a few other strange qualities as well). Fascinating resonances to this title, in many ways.
Dovegreyreader finds it talks to the same issues in other books she was reading
Lizzy Siddal likes it; but is Tada too saintly? She follows her review up with a chat with Mari
Savidge Reads gives us a male point of view on this book
Read Waterstones' Interview with Mari Strachan