Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Novels that feature young protagonists offer an interesting perspective on plots, other characters, and so on. It can be tricky to write young characters; they need to be convincing and authentic, but still interesting. That said, though, books with young protagonists add a different sort of point of view to the genre. Let’s look at one today, and turn the spotlight on Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat.
The story takes place in the 1950s, in a small Welsh village, where twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan lives with her mother, Magda, her father, whom she calls Tada, and her older sister, Bethan. Gwenni’s a little unusual. She’s a reader and what people often call a dreamer. She’s curious, too, and likes to get answers to her questions. Life in the village isn’t exactly exciting, but it’s the only life most people, including Gwenni, know.
Then, one of the villagers, Ifan Evans, goes missing. Gwenni knows the Evans family; she minds their two children from time to time, and she likes Ifan’s wife, Elin. So, she wants to find out what happened to him. Then, she has a dream (or is it a vision?) in which she sees a body. When Ifan’s body is, in fact, discovered, Gwenni starts asking questions. Very slowly, she starts to put the pieces together.
As Gwenni searches for answers, we learn more about the people who live in the village. Beneath its idyllic surface, there are some dark secrets. And as Gwenni discovers what they are, she also learns some things about her own family. In the end, we find out who killed Ifan Evans and why. And it turns out that this murder is related to some of the dark secrets we learn.
In the meantime, Gwenni is growing up. And so are her friends and classmates. That’s a little difficult for her, as things are changing. For instance, her best friend, Alwenna Thomas, is now getting more interested in clothes and boys than she is in adventures with Gwenni. In fact, she chides Gwenni about being odd and about the way she dresses. This ‘coming of age’ aspect is woven through the story in other ways, too, as Gwenni finds some answers to her questions.
The story is told from Gwenni’s perspective (first person, mostly past tense). So, we learn quite a bit about her. She’s an unusual thinker, and doesn’t as a rule care much about other people’s opinions of her. I’ve read several comparisons of her character to that of Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That comparison may not work for everyone, of course. At the same time as Gwenni is content with her own way of looking at life, she’s not unaware that she thinks differently. For example, Gwenni is convinced that she can fly in her dreams – really go to different places. Can she? Is she dreaming? Whichever is the case, as she slowly makes sense of what she learns about herself, the town, and Ifan Evans’ death, readers see how she perceives the world.
This makes the solution to the mystery a bit different to, say, a police procedural or a PI novel. The clues don’t come in the form of, for instance, forensic evidence, witness statements and the like. Rather, Gwenni slowly works things out as she hears gossip, listens to what people say, and thinks about it all.
Readers also learn about the other people in the village, starting with Gwenni’s family. There are some dark undertones, as we see some signss of dysfunction. Gwenni’s mother, Magda, for instance, would like her daughter to fit in better. Village approval, if you will, and conforming to expectations, is very important to her. And it’s clear that she prefers Bethan’s company to Gwenni’s. And we discover that both Magda and Tada have their own issues. And those impact the family dynamics.
As the story moves on, and Gwenni interacts with the other characters, it’s clear that they know things Gwenni doesn’t. Readers will want to pay attention to the characters’ reactions, comments and so on. Gwenni doesn’t always get the point of what others say, but readers will.
The story takes place in a small Welsh town, and Strachan evokes the setting in several ways. Daily life, culture, and so on all reflect the context. For one thing, it’s a small place, so everyone knows everyone’s business. And that figures into the plot. It’s a distinctly Welsh place, too. There are, for instance, some comments about speaking Welsh and speaking English, and there are a few Welsh words used. The novel is set in the 1950s, and there’s quite a bit of description of the times, too. World War II is still a very real memory for many people, and this post-war period has its share of privation.
There’s also a discussion of mental illness in the novel. It plays a role in more than one character’s life, and it’s interesting to see it’s perceived at this time and in this place. It’s also interesting to see how Gwenni thinks about it, and how her thinking evolves.
Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, The Earth Hums in B Flat takes place in a small, distinctively Welsh village not very long after World War II. It features a cast of village characters, some of whom have been keeping some dark secrets, and shows what happens to everyone when a murder takes place. And it’s seen through the eyes of an unusual girl who has her own perspective on everything. But what’s your view? Have you read The Earth Hums in B Flat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 11 September/Tuesday, 12 September – The Dawn Patrol – Don Winslow
Monday, 18 September/Tuesday, 19 September – Another Margaret – Janice McDonald
Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson