Battle and hum
A debut novelist in her sixties, Wales’ Mari Strachan has ambitions to write in her mother tongue. For now, she tells Yasmin Sulaiman about a WW2 narrator
From The Catcher in the Rye to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, literature in English is littered with novelists attempting to capture the bold yet naive voice of adolescence. In her debut novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat, Welsh writer Mari Strachan stylishly adds to this corpus with her lively narrator Gwenni Morgan, a young girl on the cusp of puberty, with a nose for detective stories and an unbridled desire to get to the bottom of a local villager’s ill-fated disappearance. Strachan grew up in Harlech in North Wales and worked as a librarian in England before turning to writing. Now retired and in her sixties, the native Welsh speaker claims the idea for her debut was born from a simple, though obscure, image. ‘It sounds sadistic but a picture came into my mind of a raggedy looking child with red hair, standing on a chair with her arms stretched out.’
This slightly strange figure succinctly sums up Gwenni who, to her overbearing mother’s annoyance, thinks she can fly. But Strachan believes that the character’s poetic tendency for oddness could possibly be the book’s downfall: ‘I do suspect that she is a character that will get very mixed reactions. I think that some people will love her and others will dismiss her as a pesky child; but that’s also quite nice because you’re trying to get people involved in the book.’ Though clearly set in her homeland (the novel is written in English but with characters speaking Welsh), Strachan’s debut gives few clues as to its precise setting, save for references to Snowdon skylines and the 1958 Munich air disaster. But its image-driven, suspenseful prose conjures up a richly-textured portrait of a community on the verge of dramatic upheaval. The domestic disruption caused by the Second World War has devastating consequences for Gwenni’s family but, in contrast to this bleak denouement, Strachan appears upbeat. ‘It will be wonderful to see what book readers will think of it. People come to a book with so much of their own perceptions about things, don’t they? We all read differently.’
And with Canongate already commissioning the work for translation into several languages, The Earth Hums in B Flat looks likely to make a global impact if initial reception continues to be positive. Strachan, who owns the rights to the Welsh translation, is particularly proud of this. ‘I’ve had contact with some of the translators and a lot of them have said that they didn’t know much about Wales before reading the book. They didn’t even realise it had its own language. I feel really good about that.’ But where next for Wales’ newest literary star? Despite being caught up in publicity for her book (including an appearance at Aye Write!), Strachan has already begun work on her next novel, which also examines the effects of war on families. However, writing in her mother tongue will have to wait for now. ‘Eventually, I’d like to write a novel in Welsh,’ she says with clear excitement, ‘but at this point in time I’m more interested in taking Wales to the world.’
The Earth Hums in B Flat is published by Canongate on Thu 5 Mar; Strachan appears at Aye Write! on Sat 14 Mar.