“I fly in my sleep every night.” So begins the guileless, sometimes lyrical narration of Gwennie Morgan, a book-loving 12-year-old living in a Welsh seaside village in the 1950s. Such magic is a matter of course to her — perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s one of those children mothers deem “quaint” and schoolmates taunt — and a sustained mystery for the reader, an ambiguity set against a dreamy child’s more obvious fancies. In Gwennie’s world, the Toby jugs on the living room mantel watch her family with malign curiosity, and the faces she sees in the scullery’s distemper paint know her parents’ secrets.
And there are secrets aplenty in Welsh author Mari Strachan’s absorbing debut, from Gwennie’s plot to pinch a fox-fur stole to unspoken family tragedy and affliction. Some secrets are discovered as the novel progresses, while others are merely uncovered; as Gwennie’s brassy, know-it-all friend, Alwenna, puts it: “his is really secret stuff. I mean, everyone knows but it’s really secret. All right?”
Gwennie’s claims to levitation are key not just to the book’s atmosphere, but to its plot: Gwennie has flown above her village “in air as soft and light as an eiderdown” and spied a body in the Baptism Pool of the Scotch Baptist church. A quick check of the waters the following day reveals no floating corpse, but shortly thereafter, Ifan Evans, father of the two girls Gwennie babysits, vanishes. Gwennie, who longs to be a detective despite being told it’s not a job for girls, decides to investigate. Step one: make a “Have You Seen Him?” poster, as if Ifan were a lost cat. Step two: interview the neighbors, who will say unhelpful things like, “I’ll have to have a word with your mam.”
The preceding paragraphs may make Strachan’s novel sound like Peter Pan meets Harriet the Spy with a dash of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but The Earth Hums in B Flat is a far moodier tale, one whose narrative drive comes from Ifan’s disappearance (and, as it turns out, his murder) but whose true subject is Gwennie’s transition to adolescence, with all the confusions, indignities, and sorrows such a transition entails. The novel makes quiet statements, too, about the effects of war (many in the village lost a family member in World War II), the nature of insular communities, and the politics of language (Strachan, a native Welsh speaker, writes in English, but her characters speak Welsh).
Gwennie’s home life is not a happy one: her sketchily drawn older sister, Bethan, alternately insults and ignores her, while her mother, called Mam, starts out bossy and irritable and progresses to authentically cruel. Her father — Tada — is kind, but his long hours as a stonemason prevent him from being a true domestic ally. And Alwenna, Gwennie’s blood sister and “Kindred Spirit,” has just discovered boys. “I’m not your best friend anymore,” she blithely informs Gwennie. “You’ll have to find someone else.”
The only people consistently kind to Gwennie are the ones at the center of the murder investigation: Elin Evans and her two daughters, especially sweet and innocent Catrin. But Gwennie hardly seems to notice her tenuous position in society’s collective affections; her focus is on stealing Mrs. Llywelyn Pugh’s fox fur in order to bury it, thereby freeing the dead fox’s spirit; learning to fly in daylight; and finding Ifan’s killer. Her lack of self-consciousness is both refreshing and frustrating. It leads her to relatively sophisticated philosophical inquiry (do animals have spirits, and if so, should we eat them?) but blinds her to the basics of social discourse (one shouldn’t blather on and on about flying and expect to be taken seriously). A more self-aware person might not repeat herself so often about the faces in the distemper or the eyes on the Toby jugs, and a better observer might grant her fellow characters more than two distinguishing traits (Mam spouts aphorisms and has the nervous shakes; Tada smells of soap and tobacco and says “lovely”; neither feels truly three-dimensional).
But Gwennie is an agreeable narrator, unburdened by the whimsy or precociousness exhibited by so many members of her fictional cohort. She would never, for example, wonder what it would be like if skyscrapers needed to be watered and tended like plants, as did the preternaturally advanced hero of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. She asks the occasional grandiose and unanswerable question (“What does the sun see? Does it see the same things as I do when I’m flying?”), but for the most part she is frank and — no pun intended — grounded. Her youthfulness limits her ability to interpret what she sees, however. This gap between Gwennie’s beliefs and her readers’ understanding is the classic friction in a child-narrated novel. We divine early on Ifan’s connection to Gwennie’s family and, a short while after that, deduce the identity of his killer; we turn the pages waiting for her to wise up.
And wise up Gwennie will, but she’ll be no better off for it. Defying our expectations, Strachan’s book gets darker as it progresses. Gwennie’s theft of the fox fur has tragic consequences; Alwenna raises the specter of a long-ago infanticide; and Mam’s mental health deteriorates. Even the pastoral sounds of the countryside come to signify loss. “Listen,” Gwennie urges, “there’s a sheep calling somewhere for her lamb. Calling and calling. But perhaps the lamb has already been taken to market, and she’ll never find it.”
By the novel’s end, Gwennie is still struggling to make sense of it all, and there’s little to comfort her but her nocturnal flight.
Up here, far away from everybody, the night is peaceful; there’s no sound except the hum of the Earth?. he Earth’s deep, never-ending note clothes me in rainbow colors, 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 Whip and the cool slipperiness of glowing red jelly.
As practical, knowledgeable adults, we know this can’t be true, and by now we suspect Gwennie does, too. But we hope that last bit of fantastical innocence lingers. The pull of gravity only increases over time: it seems wise to take to the air for as long as one can.