The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
Perhaps it’s something to do with growing older, but each year I find myself more and more enamored with precocious child characters. I don’t know if I can blame it on some sort of nostalgia for some of my favorite books I read as a kid, like Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables, but I think it must be some sort of established preference for reading about clever, brazen girls who sometimes are misfits and always are bookish. That’s why I love books like Peace Like a River and The Elegance of the Hedgehog. So of course I was inclined to pick up Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat, the latest in what appears to be a growing trend of books for adults with a child narrator.
Set in a very small Welsh town in the 1950s, Strachan tells the story of Gwenni, a twelve-year-old bookish girl with a penchant for poking her nose where it doesn’t belong and being very strong-willed about it. When Ifan Evans, the father of two girls she babysits, goes missing, she becomes entrenched in figuring out what happened. The cliched girl who is too smart for her own good forms the backdrop of the novel, but it is sprinkled with some originality.
Gwenni isn’t just an “odd” girl, as her mentally-ill mother likes to call her. She has a gift. She can fly in her dreams and see visions. At first it seems like simply the act of an over-imaginative child, but certain parts of the novel imply that she really is able to fly. Even if she isn’t doing it, she truly believes she is.
What is she flying away from? Gwenni doesn’t have the normal easy existence. Her mother holds a dark secret about her past that she keeps from both Gwenni and her other daughter, Bethan. She lashes out at her “odd” daughter any chance she can get, and so Gwenni must depend upon her father and grandmother for kindness. It’s when Gwenni is hovering over the earth that she sees beauty in the world. She describes the sound the earth makes:
At school, when I sang the note to Mr. Hughes Music he said it was B flat but he laughed when I said it was the note the Earth hummed. He said: You’ll be hearing the music of the spheres next, Gwenni. But he doesn’t know how the Earth’s deep, never-ending note clothes me in rainbow colours, fills my head with all the books ever written, and feeds me with the smell of Mrs. Sergeant Jones’s famous vanilla biscuits and the strawberry taste of Instant Whp and the cool slipperiness of glowing red jelly. I could stay up here for ever without the need for anything else in the whole world.
Gwenni’s imagination and ability to transcend her surroundings are what make her able to gradually mature and better understand what’s happening around her. She is told that Ifan Evans was not just missing, but found murdered, and like the detective mysteries that she loves to read, Gwenni tries to piece together clues to come up with the answer. When it is finally revealed who did it, her family history comes crashing around her and everything changes forever.
Gwenni’s character is by far the best part of the novel. She might be a cliche but she’s endearing and takes a lot of abuse from her mother, who constantly mistreats her by saying awful things like “Not my daughter... I never wanted her.” By the time her mother has a complete mental breakdown, Gwenni has had to endure much more than the average twelve-year-old.
This is a novel about family secrets, family history, and coming to terms with who people are and why they make the decisions that they do. It’s also about trying to understand what we inherit. Gwenni tries to make sense of what is passed on from generation to generation, but she wants to know more: “But why can’t a family tree record other things? Things that are passed down like noses and hair and freckles and religious mania and blowing smoke rings and whistling and being clever and flying.”
Ultimately there’s a bit of Gwenni in all of us; that trapped inner child trying to understand who we are and where we come from. She’s just a hell of a lot more resilient and free-spirited than most of us are.
The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan
Canongate Books Ltd