Mari Strachan’s debut novel has only been available for 15 days and has already received a fair amount of online attention. A good publisher is worth its weight in gold and Canongate really knows how to support its authors and create a buzz. Advance copies of Mari Strachan’s book were sent to bookgrouponline readers and willing volunteers in the blogging community (myself included). Dovegreyreader loves the book … and I, having rattled through all 327 pages in just 3 evenings, am similarly enchanted.
Set in 1950’s Wales, young Gwennie (12/13) has much to endure; not least her miserable mother and hateful elder sister. She is an imaginative child, who believes she can fly. This worries her mother because madness runs, shamefully (it is the 50’s) in the family and she doesn’t want any suggestion that it is recurring. Of course, Gwennie is blissfully ignorant and continues with this and other such antics undeterred. What antics? Stealing fox fur wraps so that she can bury the fox and free its spirit …. becoming a self-appointed detective when the body of a local man is found in the reservoir.
At this juncture, Gwennie’s mother’s nerves go into overdrive and secrets of the past begin to rise to the surface. Secrets that weren’t that well-kept – this is a small Welsh village after all – but certainly weren’t discussed. The case isn’t that difficult to crack but that’s not the point. It’s watching Gwennie solve the riddles, deal with village prejudice and injustice and her mother’s inevitable breakdown that keeps the pages turning.
Interestingly Gwennie never says how she feels. She externalises her feelings. With more than a passing nod to Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman, there are faces in distemper (plaster?) on the kitchen wall and the two Toby jugs on the mantelpiece have a life of their own.
“That’s enough,” Mam shouts. Her chair skitters back as she leaps to her feet The Toby jugs jitter on their high shelf. Their cheeks are mottled with red, their eyes small and black as bilberries. “That’s enough of that sort of talk, Bethan.”
This results in Gwennie appearing younger than her years. Talking at this year’s AyeWrite festival, Strachan said that this was a deliberate strategy. She wanted to inject a sense of unease into the narrative and decided that rather that write it in, she decided to let the knowingness of the reader do it for her. So, as Gwennie blithely refuses to be seen and not heard, the reader senses the revelations to follow and hopes that the girl doesn’t get damaged in the process.
Fortunately Gwennie holds a couple of aces. The first, her father, Tada, a living guardian angel, although I found his saintliness slightly overdone. The second, her intelligence. At times she wilfully remains unknowing – particularly when she understands how Ifan Evans died. She reflects the wisdom of her day – it was certainly a favourite adage of my mother- what you don’t know won’t hurt you.