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Strachan, Mari - 'The Earth Hums in B Flat'
Paperback: 329 pages (May 2010) Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd ISBN: 1847673058

THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT is definitely not a typical crime novel. Its fey slightly unwordly pre-teen heroine and narrator is Gwenni, a 12-year-old living in modest circumstances in a Welsh village in the late 50s. She lives with her Mam, Taid and older sister Bethan (with whom she shares a bed). Welsh is the dominant language (apart from at school) and chapel and aspirations towards respectability dominate. Gwenni is unusual: she believes she can fly over the village by night, and that there are faces in the wallpaper that talk to her when she goes to the pantry. However she finds that her unique take on the world is not universally appreciated. Her Mam is keen to discourage any overt demonstrations of Gwenni's "oddness", such as discussions of flying, fearing village gossip, and her best friend, the rather more wordly Alwenna, is starting to be more interested in boys than in participating in hair-brained schemes.

When local shepherd, Ifan Evans, disappears, Gwenni is determined to track him down, emulating the detectives such as Albert Campion in the books passed to her by her Aunt Lol. Gwenni believes that finding Mr Evans will prevent Mrs Evans and the children being thrown out of their house and starving and becoming ill. The former fear (loss of the house) turning out to be not that unrealistic. Although Gwenni was in the Evans's house to babysit the morning of his appearance, it takes her some time to realise how much she knows about what really happened. The disappearance of Ifan Evans has a ripple effect throughout the community, not least in Gwenni's own family. Her straight-laced mam goes into a downward spiral after the disappearance; she has more and more overt trouble with her nerves, starting to pop ever more pills prescribed by the local GP. Her anger at Gwenni's "oddness" becomes even more vehement. When Bethan's class start to study basic genetics and eye colour, long hidden family secrets start to surface.

THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT is a touching, atmospheric novel. Gwenni is an intriguing, offbeat and at times slightly irritating heroine. Just as interesting is the gradual unravelling of Mam, whose repetitive refrains about needing beauty sleep and avoiding becoming the subject of village gossip start to take on an ever more brittle quality, as her anger and frustration (the brunt of which is mostly borne by Gwenni) grow. The minor characters are drawn skilfully. The author shows the incipient snobbery and tension between classes with a dry humour; Mam looks down on Alwenna and her gossipy mother, whilst the wealthier Welsh and English families in their turn look down on the villagers. Mari Strachan neatly conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of a small Welsh village, and in a manner almost reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, the damage that can be wrought by long kept secrets and lies in family life, both in Gwenni's family and the Evans family. This is quite simply a marvellous book, that defies simple categorisation, touching on mystery, madness, growing up, and the lies and ties that bind.

Laura Root, England
July 2010

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 25/07/2010 09:53