Book, screen, stage, festival & event reviews.
Canongate recently sent me some books. Then I contacted them, asking for this one. I'd become aware of it and thought it might be just up my street. I was born in the early 1960s in south Wales and thought I might relate. The Earth Hums in B Flat is the tale of 12.5 year old Gwenni Morgan's coming of age in a small and close community in north Wales in the 1950s. But it's more than that too. It involves some detection, as Gwenni wants to be a detective when she grows up and she loves detective fiction. Her home town proves to be fertile ground when Ifan Evans goes missing, later to be found, dead, near the reservoir and Baptism Pool. Her life is not easy as her "Mam" suffers from "nerves" – possibly inherited – and Mam favours her elder daughter Bethan over Gwenni, every time. Gwenni's view on life and investigations are cut through with an innocence and the naivety of someone younger and that is my only small criticism. But I arrived at the 12.5 years of age almost, possibly up to twenty years later, so perhaps I am wrong with this thought.
What I will say with assurance – and I make no apologies for being so effusive here – Mari Strachan has, with The Earth Hums in B Flat, created a perfect evocation of Welsh life for that time. There is sense of constant worry about what the neighbours might think and being on best behaviour. There are the dressed-up-in-Sunday-best trips to chapel and later, afternoon Sunday School for the children. (In the novel the children delightfully get away with far more unruly behaviour than we did in mine in the 60s.) There are the chapel-organised cultural outings with transport by charabanc. The names are spot on, including the link to occupation, characteristic or status: Mad Huw; Sergeant Jones and Mrs Sergeant Jones; Nanw Lipstick; Mrs Davies Chapel House; The Voice of God; Jones the Butcher. (Where I came from we had Batty Bevan, Dunning the Milk and Adams the Coal…) There is the worry and avoidance of things unknown or misunderstood, particularly in the context of mental health issues. There is the ritual of Sunday lunches: always a roast and often followed by a rice pudding (which needs to be thick and not watery). There is the closeness of local community, but above all, the closeness and loyalty of family. There is the aspiration of having a decent kitchen and bathroom indoors, something my own parents had achieved by the time I came along, although I do possess a picture of me in a tin bath, as a baby.
For me, this novel became personal and evoked a lot of wonderful and warm memories, after loosing both my parents in 2007. For that I thank the author, Mari Strachan, who has done Wales and the Welsh proud with this novel. Scottish publisher Canongate also deserve a hat tip; they know a good novel when they read one.
It is Gwenni's naivety that leads her into uncovering the secrets of her own family as she investigates what happened to Ifan Evans (and becomes one of the very few to learn the truth of his fate). Gwenni is easy to love; she's a feisty Welsh child who will grow into a strong Welsh woman. For those with a vested interest, as I have, this will prove a book to treasure. If you'd like to experience a slice of Welsh life circa the late 1950s, then this is a book for you. If you enjoy a mystery, with a dark undercurrent – it's not all daffs in Wales, you know – then you'll enjoy this novel. I simply urge you to read The Earth Hums in B Flat.
Books and reading feature prominently in this novel, which is also reflective of the time. In Wales, education was seen as the route of advancement and reading was encouraged. Last year, after about 30 years I bumped into an old school friend in my local M&S. She said to me "You always had a book in your hand" and before I could get in a reply she added, "And I was the gobby one." That's Wales and the Welsh for you.
Mari Strachan is appearing at the Hay Festival in the last week of May. I met her briefly at Laugharne the other weekend and hope to meet her again to discuss the book, now that I've read it. Get there if you can and do give The Earth Hums in B Flat a try. Reading it was one of the most enjoyable and enriching experiences I've had in a few years. Thank you for the memories, Mari!
Finally, I am dedicating this post to the memory of Mrs Owen, whose funeral I will be attending on Monday. She was the long term neighbour of my maternal grandmother and had been a dinner lady at my school. I last saw her before Christmas when I personally delivered her Christmas card and she was thrilled to see me. I promised to see her again in the new year and to my regret, alas, that wasn't to be.