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The Earth Hums In B Flat

The Earth Hums In B Flat

4.0 7
by Mari Strachan

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"Has our family got secrets?"

"Every Family has, Gwenni. Big secrets, small secrets, silly secrets, bad things we want to hide..."

Young Gwenni Morgan has a gift. She can fly in her sleep. She's also fond of strawberry whip, detective stories and asking difficult questions. When a neighbour mysteriously vanishes, she resolves to uncover the secret of his


"Has our family got secrets?"

"Every Family has, Gwenni. Big secrets, small secrets, silly secrets, bad things we want to hide..."

Young Gwenni Morgan has a gift. She can fly in her sleep. She's also fond of strawberry whip, detective stories and asking difficult questions. When a neighbour mysteriously vanishes, she resolves to uncover the secret of his disappearance and return him to his children. She truthfully records what she sees and hears: but are her deductions correct? What is the real truth? And what will be the consequences - for Gwenni, her family and her community - of finding it out?

Editorial Reviews

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Every night, 12-year-old Gwenni Morgan flies in her sleep. She leaves the bed she shares with her sister and soars into the night sky, listening to the nighttime sounds of her small Welsh village below. Irrepressible Gwenni -- a dreamer full of unanswerable questions and unbounded curiosity -- is childlike yet touchingly adult. Reluctantly facing a modern world, she prefers her nightly flights to school and her chores. Blessed with the uncommon insight of a young girl, Gwenni's view of the world is unparalleled.

Quaint, odd, touched, funny in the head: Gwenni is all too familiar with the taunts of her peers and fields them with equanimity beyond her years. She knows she can no more change her nature than stop the sun from rising. And when a neighbor goes missing, Gwenni turns amateur sleuth, determined to solve the mystery of his disappearance. Little does she realize that the trail she's pursuing will bring her uncomfortably close to home, and a dark secret.

Vivid, imaginative, yet remarkably unsentimental, The Earth Hums in B Flat is a transporting debut. Strachan has created a magical character in Gwenni -- bighearted, inquisitive, and charming as all get-out. Her special way of looking at the world and her ability to transform the ordinary in the extraordinary are poetically rendered in this remarkable story of family, duty, understanding, and forgiveness. (Fall 2009 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

Twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan bears witness as her family crumbles under the weight of its secrets in Strachan's lyrical debut. In a small Welsh village swirling with secrets and gossip, few are willing to tell the truth about who they are. Gwenni soars above the local intrigue in her dreams-each night as she drifts off to sleep she flies away from her family and over the nearby fields and farms-and hopes someday to fly during the day as well. Though most, including her mother, see Gwenni's unending curiosity as a nuisance, local schoolteacher Elin Evans nurtures Gwenni's dreams of a different life. When Elin's husband, Ifan, disappears, town tongues wag, and when his body is found, Gwenni's mother mourns him more than seems proper. Strachan ramps up the tension, as Gwenni is caught between loyalties and learns some damning family secrets. The author's light touch keeps the story unfamiliar and surprising, while Gwenni's über-precocious narration revels in a love for language and reveals an unspoiled innocence about the world. It's small, quiet and nicely done. (June)

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Kirkus Reviews
Murder, suicide, madness and awful food: An artless Welsh child must deal with them all in this dire first novel from Strachan, a resident of West Wales. Gwenni Morgan dreams every night of flying above her small seaside town in North Wales. Her reasons for escaping the here-and-now are clear. In her cramped home, the 12-year-old must share a bed with her hostile big sister Bethan. A bigger problem is her Mam (Mom). When she's not burning the pudding, Magda Morgan is on her daughter's case: Do this; don't do that. And why must she be so odd? Gwenni is an imaginative child who gives personalities to household objects. Her Tada (Dad), a gentle, passive stonemason, tolerates this, but Magda rules. There is another unhappy family in town. Ifan Evans is a shepherd, his wife Elin a genteel, sympathetic teacher; they have two small daughters. Rumor has it that he abuses his wife and kids; he may even have killed two of their babies in the past. Sometimes Gwenni helps Elin look after the girls, and she's very good with them. For half its length the novel, narrated by Gwenni, putters along like an old-fashioned YA story. The main activity in town is gossip; the period is the dreary interval between World War II and the arrival of television. The gossips have a field day when Ifan disappears and his body is found floating in the reservoir. Detectives question Gwenni. Two arrests are made, and a minor character kills herself (slashed wrists, lots of blood) before attention shifts back to Gwenni's family. Mam is becoming increasingly agitated over the dead shepherd. Were they lovers when Tada was off in the war? Skeletons tumble out of the closet in a last-minute rush, including revelationsof madness and suicide (wristwork again) one generation back. Gwenni has her first period. When Mam becomes hysterical, calling her Satan, it's time for the needle. The doctor obliges. A coming-of-age story hijacked by Grand Guignol.
Emily Chenoweth
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: "[T]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.... [T]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. --Emily Chenoweth

Emily Chenoweth is the author of the novel Hello Goodbye (Random House). A former fiction editor of Publishers Weekly, her work has appeared in Tin House, Bookforum, People, and the anthology The Friend Who Got Away, among other publications.

Product Details

Isis Publishing Ltd
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.13(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

I fly in my sleep every night. When I was little I could fly without being asleep; now I can't, even though I practise and practise. And after what I saw last night I want more than ever to fly wideawake. Mam always says: I want never gets. Is that true?

Last night began like every other night. I went to bed and changed under the bedclothes so Buddy Holly couldn't see me, and I laid my pink polka-dot hair ribbon down the middle of the mattress to show which side was whose, and Bethan said, like she always does: I don't want to sleep on your old side, anyway.

Then, as soon as she was snoring she flung her arm across my face, and when I pinched her she swung her leg across my stomach.

So, it was hard to fall asleep. But when I did I left Bethan to spread herself across the whole bed and I soared into a sky that wrapped me in air as light and warm as an eiderdown. I listened to the town below breathe its shallow night-time breaths, in and out, in and out, and all around me the Earth sang.

For a while I hovered above the town's higgledy-piggledy houses. They cling to their streets as if they might roll all the way down to the sea and fall in if they let go. But last night, as usual, none of them let go and I didn't have to save anybody. I swerved away and rose high to avoid the Red Dragon flapping against its pole above the castle gatehouse, and swooped low over the council houses and across the sands to the sea where the air is always thick with salt that crusts on my lips as if I'd that minute undone a blue twist from a bag of crisps and licked it.

The sea, too, breathed in and out, its breast swelling with each breath until I was half afraid that the Leviathan from the Bible would burst from its depths and shower me with spume. Whales, porpoises, mermaids and mermen, dead sailors, fishes, crabs, tiny shrimps; the sea is forever full of eyes that watch me. I never fly far beyond the shore. If my town were a map the bay would have Here be Monsters written on it in golden ink.

Like every other night, I sped from the sea to drift along the road that winds its way beyond the Baptism Pool and the Reservoir high into the hills behind the town. As I passed above the Pool I saw a man floating in it with his arms outstretched and the moon drowning in his eyes. That was not like every other night and the fright plummeted me back to my bed, right on top of Bethan. I couldn't push her to her own side to make room to lie down so I got up early to practise wide-awake flying.

It's cold down here in the living room so I fasten up all the buttons on my cardigan. I need to be high up and Tada's armchair has the highest seat, but the cushion is old and saggy and it's difficult to balance on it. When I glimpse my reflection in the looking glass above the fireplace I see a scarecrow frowning at me, a skinny arm sticking out each side and red hair erupting from her head. Tada says it's the family hair, but Mam always says: Pity you have that old family nose to go with it. It's best not to look in the mirror too long in case the Devil appears in it so I scrunch my eyes closed until I feel the freckles pop on my cheeks. The tick-tock of the brown clock on the mantelpiece is loud and the tap that Tada has mended three times drip-drips in the scullery. Fly, I tell myself. Fly, fly, fly. Slowly, the sounds fade and I feel warm and weightless. I'm just about to rise from Tada's chair, light as an angel, when Mam's slippers go slap on the stairs and I fall off the seat.

John Morris opens an eye and squints at me from the other armchair.

'I nearly did it,' I whisper to him. 'Really.'

He purrs, then wraps his tail around his face and goes back to sleep.

I pull The Tiger in the Smoke that Aunty Lol lent me from beneath the saggy cushion, blow some Marie biscuit crumbs from the pages, and curl up tight as a fist in Tada's armchair to read it.

As soon as Mam comes through the living room door she sniffs so hard I can hear the hair clips on her yellow pincurls chatter against each other.

'It smells sooty in here,' she says, 'and it's chilly. You could have made the fire instead of sitting there with your beak in a book.'

'I don't like lighting the matches. You know that.'

'Don't be silly, Gwenni.' She kneels down and begins to riddle the half burnt lumps of wood. Clouds of fine ash billow around her. 'A girl of thirteen,' she says, and sighs. I uncurl and push my book back under the cushion. 'Twelve and a half,' I say.

Mam rams the half full ash pan back into place and crumples newspaper into the grate over which she lays a grid of kindling and three logs. The matches sputter and die but at last the paper catches light and the wood begins to crackle. Mam stands up and shakes the folds of her blue satin dressing gown. The stale scent of Evening in Paris drifts from them with the ash. I try to hold my breath but I feel a throb above my eyebrows, like the ghostof the dripping tap, and the back of my neck stiffens. I rub it with a cold hand, and remember what I saw in the scullery when I got up.

'There's a mouse caught in the trap,' I say.


'I think so.'

'A dead mouse won't hurt you.'

'I'm not afraid of it. I just don't like touching it.'

Mam takes the empty wood box into the scullery. Through the door I watch her as she crouches by the trap. John Morris follows her and she pushes him away with her elbow, then eases the spring from the mouse's broken back and picks up the body.

'Nain said she pulled a mouse out of a trap by its tail like that once. It was only pretending to be dead and it swung right round and bit her thumb,' I tell her.

Mam carries the corpse out through the back door and throws it into the bin. 'Nasty, dirty thing,' she says and slams the bin lid over it.

She washes her hands under the dripping tap and says, 'Bring in the kettle to fill, Gwenni. The fire'll be hot enough. Your father'll be wondering where his cup of tea's got to.'

I take the kettle into the scullery. The green distemper on the walls is beginning to peel and flake, shaping faces with sly eyes and mouths tight with secrets. There are new faces there every day. I try not to see them watching me.

'Mam,' I say, 'when I was flying last night I saw something that scared me.'

Mam fills the kettle and puts it on the fire in the living room.

Her hands shake and some of the water slops over onto the logs, making them hiss.

'In the Baptism Pool,' I say.

'Don't talk rubbish,' says Mam. 'And I thought I told you I didn't want to hear about that flying nonsense again. You haven't been telling anyone else about it, have you?'

'I asked Aunty Lol if she could remember me flying when I was little.'

'How many times do I have to say it, Gwenni? People can't fly.'

'But I can remember it. I can, really. You and Aunty Lol were holding my hands and swinging me and then you let go and I just flew along the ground without touching it. Like this.' I crouch and fold my arms around my legs.

Mam grasps my arm and yanks me up. 'Stop that. Stop that,' she shouts. Her dressing gown slithers open and she pulls it tight around her and takes a shaky breath.

'Listen to me, Gwenni. It never happened; that was a dream, too. Don't you dare say anything to anyone about it again.'

'Why not?' I rub my arm where Mam has squeezed it.

'You don't want people to think you're odd, do you?'


'Yes, odd. Touched. Funny in the head. Like Guto'r Wern.'

The kettle lets out a gentle steam, blinding the window, shutting out the rest of the world.

'People won't think I'm like Guto just because I can fly in my sleep,' I say.

'Dreaming is one thing. Saying you really do it is another. What did Aunty Lol say?'

'She said perhaps I was a witch.'

'You see what I mean?' says Mam. Her knuckles turn white as she tightens the dressing gown's sash around her waist.

The kettle belches steam in great snorts.

'Fetch the tea tray,' says Mam and takes it from me when I bring it into the living room. The cups and saucers rattle on the tray. It's early for Mam's nerves to be so bad. She sets the tray down on the table, then picks up the milk bottle from it and pushes it in front of my face.

'You've given John Morris the top of the milk again,' she says.

'He likes it,' I say.

'So does everyone else,' says Mam. 'I've told you before not to waste it on the cat. I may as well talk to the man in the moon.'

She bangs the bottle down on the tray and scoops tea into the teapot. Two scoops. She lifts the kettle from the fire, holding it away from her to keep the soot from her dressing gown, and pours the water into the pot.

'So, promise me you won't say anything to anyone about it,' she says.

'About what?' I say.

Mam's hand shakes again as she puts the lid back on the teapot. 'This flying nonsense.'

'Not even to Alwenna?'

'Certainly not,' says Mam.

'But she's my Kindred Spirit. I want to show her how to fly, once I remember.'

'Not Alwenna. It would be all round the council houses in no time. Cross your heart.'

I make a big cross over my heart. But I cross my fingers at the same time. Alwenna already knows about the flying I do at night. 'Cross my heart,' I say. 'And hope to die.' I drop down into Tada's armchair and pull out my book.

Mam slips the knitted cosy over the teapot. 'Don't start reading now. You've got to get cracking this morning.'

'Why? I can't change the beds if Tada and Bethan are still in them.'

'Bethan can do that today. I've promised you to Mrs Evans Brwyn Coch this morning to look after the two girls.'

'I hate going to Brwyn Coch.'

'Don't be silly. You like the children.'

'But I don't like Mr Evans.'

'Don't like Ifan Evans?' Mam stops pouring milk into the cups. 'He's a wonderful man. Well respected. I only promised you to Elin as a favour to him.'

'His face is too red.'

'He can't help his red face, Gwenni. It's because he's out in the fields all day.'

'He's just like those Toby jugs.'

Mam looks up at the three jugs on their shelf above the looking glass. Straightaway, the Toby jugs pretend they're not staring at the china woman that Mam and Tada were given as a wedding present by their best man who died in the war. The china woman stands on the sideboard and doesn't wear any clothes at all, not even knickers. When the Toby jugs watch her they forget to smoke their pipes or drink from the tankards in their hands and their fat cheeks turn redder and redder and their eyes grow darker and darker.

'Mr Evans doesn't smoke or drink,' Mam says. 'Chapel deacons aren't allowed to.'

'Do I have to go?' I say.

'I said you'd be there by half past nine,' says Mam. 'Mrs Evans has to go to Price the Dentist. He's in town this morning, but only for a couple of hours. So hurry yourself.'

'Don't make me go, Mam.'

Mam lifts the teapot and pours a steaming brown stream into each cup.

'Don't be silly,' she says. 'Now, have your cup of tea, brush that hair and get your Wellingtons on.'

'But it's not raining.'

'The fields will still be wet after the snow. I'll take this tea up to your father and wake Bethan. I want you in your Wellingtons ready to go when I come down.'

Mam picks up the biggest cup and saucer, the ones with A Present from Llandudno written on them in gold, and opens the living room door. The cup trembles on the saucer. She looks back at me. 'You have to go,' she says.

The door closes behind her and I listen to her slippers slapslapping all the way up to the bedroom.

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The Earth Hums in B Flat 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lizzie-B More than 1 year ago
Enjoy this clever, well-written mystery, told from the POV of an imaginative and vulnerable girl. Strongly evocative of a specific place and time, this book transcends genre.
would-rather-be-reading More than 1 year ago
Yes it took me a page or two to get into this book. But once there, I could not put it down. I enjoyed the writing style, the atmosphere, and the story. When I finished reading it I missed my friend Gwinny
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Alyss-in-a-Bubble More than 1 year ago
This book is completely captivating. While a little slow to start, the main character will draw you in and draws you along with her simple, straight-forward thinking that is intuitive yet fresh. While fairly predictable, the delight is in the journey and how the main character arrives at the same conclusions a more mature mind readily accepts. I'd definitely recommend it to friends!
Ericajh More than 1 year ago
Although I was intrigued by the idea, this book did not hold up to my expectations. The idea of a young girl figuring out who she is through finding out more about her family and town is a great plot, but the writing style is tough to get past. It is dry and does not catch the reader's attention. Although we had a nice conversation in my book club about this book, only 3 of 10 people finished the book which says a lot when you have a month to read it. The best thing about this book is that it led me to look up what Toby Jugs are, which led me to the fact that Peyton Manning is the biggest collector of Toby Jugs, huh, who knew?