Mari Strachan’s debut novel appeared in 2009 to massive acclaim from the mainstream media. I first heard of it back in March when I wrote up the finalists for this year’s Tähtifantasia Award. What? There was a fantasy novel by a Welsh woman up for an award in translation into Finnish, and I had not heard of it? I was mortified.
Having now read the book I don’t feel quite so bad. While the quantities of fantasy in The Earth Hums in B Flat are not quite down to homeopathic levels, if you asked a mainstream reviewer to categorize the book he would probably call it “Welsh magic realism”. It has all of the necessary ingredients. The story is set in a small village, the small amount of “magic” is never overt and never explained, and the book is by someone from a non-English-speaking (and therefore primitive and superstitious) culture. (Strachan wrote the book in English, but we learn as we are reading it that the characters are speaking Welsh most of the time.)
A few chapters in I was just as captivated as the many reviewers from national newspapers and literary magazines quoted on the cover. We are introduced to young Gwenni Morgan who is charming and intelligent but very naïve. Quickly and deftly, despite seeing the world only through Gwenni’s eyes, we are shown a group of adults who are wracked with sexual jealousy. Gwenni’s father is devoted to his whiny, socially ambitious wife, but Magda Morgan despises her husband for his lack of success in life and is clearly still holding a torch for Ifan Evans. We never meet Ifan, but his wife, Elin, appears quite saintly, putting up with a vicious husband who beats her regularly for the sake of her two young daughters.
Gwenni, of course, understands none of this. She is too young, and besides, in a small village in North Wales, these things are not talked about except behind closed doors. Occasionally Gwenni gets glimpses of the truth from her friend Alwenna, whose mother, Nanw Lipstick, is the village gossip, but even then she mostly fails to understand the import of what she has heard.
We, the readers, however, know that something is up. Ifan Evans is missing, and at the start of the book Gwenni dreamed of seeing a body floating in the Baptism Pool so we know someone is dead. Eventually all of the village’s secrets are going to come tumbling out as part of the enquiry into his death. Gwenni will get to fulfill her ambition to be a detective, and will find out what crime is not always a simple matter of good and evil.
The book sags a bit in the middle as Strachan goes somewhat over the top with regards to Gwenni’s naivety, and we fell that we are being asked to see her as a joke, not as a brave little girl trying to make sense of a tragedy that has blighted two families. Thankfully things get back on an even keel towards the end as the secrets finally start to see the light of day.
If you are looking for something a bit exotic, this book is definitely very Welsh. Aside from Nanw Lipstick we have characters called Mrs. Davies Chapel House, Mrs. Edwards the Bank, Mrs. Sergeant Jones, and Mrs. Jones the Butcher. There are also John Morris the cat, and Lloyd George the budgie. It is all very Under Milk Wood, and provides an interesting contrast to Jo Walton’s Among Others, which takes place mainly in England. But the book also provides a very clear portrait of social attitudes in post-WWII Britain, and of the corrosive effect of a society that is reluctant to address issues such as sex and mental illness in public. The villagers themselves are bad enough, but at least they tolerate poor Guto’r Wern, who has major mental health issues, and Gwenni’s Auntie Lol, who is pretty obviously a lesbian. When The Authorities get involved, it is all off to the asylum with anyone who shows the slightest deviance. Which is, of course, exactly how it was back then.
I’m not sure that I would recommend this book as a fantasy novel, mainly on the basis that I don’t think it would harm the book significantly if you removed all of the fantastical elements. However, it is a delightful read, and a grim reminder of how far we have come as a society since that time.