Monday, February 23, 2009

Everyone knows and no-one says

This is a review of "The Earth Hums in B-Flat" by Mari Strachan, published on Amazon.

According to Wikipedia, an ingénue is “a girl or a young woman who is endearingly innocent and wholesome”. She is generally accompanied, as foil, by a vamp and there is often a romantic subplot featuring a young man just as innocent as the ingénue.

On this template, Mari Strachan has constructed a beautiful story set in a small Welsh village within sight of Snowdon in the late 1950s.

The ingénue is Gwenni Morgan, poised at the very end of childhood, who is bright, imaginative and therefore considered “odd” by her stolid peers, mother and sister. Her Kindred Spirit and Best Friend, Alwenna, is the knowing vamp, who has just discovered boys. Gwenni’s ‘romantic interest’ comes towards the end and is hardly that, a merest precursor for what is to come.

It is a truth universally understood that remote rural villages are hotbeds of illicit relationships overlaid with secrets and lies. The death of one of the villagers leads to an investigation and Gwenni is determined to play detective. Her relentless, innocent “childish” questions directly challenge the protective hypocrisy all around. It’s scary stuff.

Ms Strachan has a wonderful feel for poverty in the 1950s. Her descriptions of the Morgans’ domestic life: bed-sharing, paper thin walls, freezing cold, disgusting food, baths in front of the fire, a relentless lack of privacy, draw one into a life before this one. I am old enough to remember this the first time round and it certainly felt horribly authentic.

The plot is carefully handled, and the book rapidly becomes a real page turner. The intelligence in this book is that even as the reader reaches the end, and has the momentary illusion that all loose ends have been definitively tied up, there comes a realisation that all of what we think we know is in fact ambiguous. We may hope that Gwenni has finally come to a complete understanding, but she does have a habit of putting the best complexion on things.

The first person narrative style and linear development make this a suitable book for the ‘young adult’ as well as adult market. It was also serialised on BBC Radio 4’s “A Book at Bedtime”. Highly recommended.