Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Earth Hums in B Flat

Overlooking "the pile", I thought I'd turn to my most recent read, The Earth Hums in B Flat, by the Welsh novelist Mari Strachan. Based, in part, on my initial impressions of it, C has picked it for her book group in April, so I thought I'd better get recording my own thoughts before they get melded or overwritten by those of a rival blog ...

Growing up is never easy, but Gwenni, a dreamy twelve-and-a-half year old, is making particularly heavy weather of it. At night, she dreams of flying over her village, and spends her days trying to fly while awake and obsessing about releasing the soul of the fox fur wrapped around a neighbour's neck. Constantly surrounded by the gossipy, close-knit community of her small Welsh hometown, her candidly outlandish tales, told to all and sundry, are making her mother, already twitchy, even more so. Her older sister, with whom she shares a bed in their cramped home, is entering adolescence and is tired of Gwenni's childish fantasies. And her best friend, formerly a source of companionship, has begun to notice boys and to view Gwenni's obsessions as "queer". Against this backdrop, the father of two young girls that she babysits suddenly disappears, and Gwenni, devoted to his wife who allows her to borrow books, sets out to solve the mystery. But her meddling draws further unwelcome attention to Gwenni's otherworldliness, and unearths hints of a family secret that imperils her mother's uneasy grip on sanity. Buffeted by her mistakes, as well as revelations about her family and her community, Gwenni begins to dimly perceive the complex adult world that she is soon to enter.

First of all, I have to report being pleasantly relieved that the novel's early promise - upon which hangs the enjoyment of C's book group - was ultimately fulfilled. Of course, it might yet go down like a bomb with the group's seasoned readers - it certainly wouldn't be the first time that something that I've liked has been cast out of the temple. But I can at least say that my early hopes for The Earth Hums in B Flat panned out nicely.

Comparison is probably not the fairest way to write up a novel, but I was most reminded here of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And not primarily because of the plot device of a central mystery. While Gwenni isn't as unique a narrator as Christopher in that novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat shares the earlier novel's skilful framing of events by a mind not (yet) at the same wavelength as that of the characters that loom large in her world. This does, of course, mean that Gwenni can be annoying at times, particularly in her obstinate obsessions, but it's in the service of capturing a child's askew view of reality, so fits the novel perfectly.

While the "mystery" plot does unfurl nicely - though tragically - there were a few parts of the novel that didn't quite work for me. One was the resolution, of lack thereof, of the fox fur subplot (to misname it). Perhaps I just missed something, but I thought that the fate of the fur's owner was a little under-explained given what actually happens. Of course, maybe there was something in the novel that was supposed to be obvious to an adult reader but not to a child? If so, d'oh! There's also something odd with a character who "likes" Gwenni but who gets summarily drummed out of the plot rather oddly. Either this is a quasi-realistic version of how one's romantic interests come and go while very young, or a clumsy bit of plotting. I'd like to think the former, but while reading it felt like the author was simply "tidying" an unhelpful plot strand while wrapping up.

One aspect that worked particularly well for me was the novel's brilliant job on conjuring up the gossipy nature of small towns. While the details obviously differ [*], the novel chimes perfectly with my own experience of growing up with half-heard and wholly-speculated tales about other people in my home town. More generally, of being raised in an insular community where everyone seems to know everyone else - sometimes going back generations - and, more importantly, where trading idle gossip in other people's business is the norm. Interestingly, the gossiping in the novel sits alongside a pivotal strand about its opposite, the burial of family secrets. Which of these competing adult approaches to introducing children to the world is to be favoured isn't something that's entirely resolved in the novel, but concealing painful secrets is clearly a bad idea.

On that note, I'll be interested to hear what C (et al.) make of the novel's treatment of mental health. The gossipy characters clearly stigmatise it, as one should probably expect for the 1950s, but Gwenni's family is a lot more sensible and modern about her mother's fragile state. It's also interesting that the medical profession - and intervention - of the time is presented so positively. They're clearly invested in chemical treatments, but these seem to be gratefully received by Gwenni's father and grandmother. My immediate thought was that drugs were much more of a blunt instrument in those days.

In passing, one thing that I didn't clock till quite a few pages in - of which my late realisation amused me afterwards - was that the novel is set firmly in the past. Probably reflecting an unconscious prejudice borne out of my own upbringing in a small Scottish town (he says, getting his excuses in early), I at first mistook 1950s rural Wales for something much closer to the present day. In my defence, this is at least in part because Gwenni's reporting of the world is from an age at which it's more easy to imagine a lack of interest in consumer goods and mobile phones, but I'm clutching at straws here. That said, I had something of a similar experience with the Wales-set film Submarine, which, though set in the somewhat-more-recent past, also seems somewhat timeless (and is similarly told from a young adult's perspective).

Overall, my complaints are too minor to detract from my enjoyment of The Earth Hums in B Flat. I've enjoyed other book group books more (here, here and here, for instance) but I'd still rate it pretty strongly. I'd say an easy 7/10, but given that I might wind up being its only defender, I'm going to bump up a bit to 7.5/10 (I think that I'm allowed half-marks aren't I?). And I will be looking forwards to hearing what praise (or punishment) is dealt out later this month. Unfortunately, I can't make it to London that day, so this will have to stand as my testament to the book.

[*] Though not entirely. In my own life, one of my highschool teachers tragically killed himself after a short spell in our local "funny farm". Even now I can remember the morbid fascination with details of his death, which was pretty unpleasant, and with the subsequent speculations about the state of his marriage. It may well have just been my family and my peers, but I seriously doubt it. Looking back on these events now makes me a little less displeased that I live in a more atomised manner now, largely separated from my immediate community. Sometimes a bit of distance is a good thing.

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