Twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, the narrator of this novel by Mari Strachan, is considered an old girl by the people of her small Welsh village—and most especially by her mother, who frets about gossipy neighbors and apparently fears that Gwenni will one day go “doolally,” like others in the family before her. For now, Gwenni’s oddness shows up in the questions she asks and in her extreme fussiness about food—animal blood and fat give her the “family stomach,” and she can hardly see them on her plate without being sick. And then there’s the flying:
In my sleep I fly from the bottom of the hill up over the Baptism Pool in no time at all; it takes me longer to walk here. Alwenna says the Scotch Baptists from Rehoboth Chapel dress in white sheets and their minister throws them into the water the to Baptism Pool, and then they’re baptised.
Last night to Pool was full of water, the way it is in winter, when I saw the man floating on it. His arms and legs were spread out like a cross and his white shirt ballooned on the surface. But it was his moonshiny eyes that scared me into falling. Was it a drowned Baptist? Or a Baptist’s spirit? Do spirits float?
I make my eyes into little slits to look into the Baptism Pool. There’s no one in there. Maybe there are things I can see only when I’m flying.
Gwennie makes these observations while on her way to the Evans’s house to take care of the two Evans girls. Gwennie enjoys spending time with these girls, and their mother appreciates Gwennie’s help. That help becomes more important when Ifan Evans, the girls’ father, disappears, having last been seen leaving the house with his black dog. Gwennie decides to investigate, an idea which bores her friend Alwenna, who is beginning to prefer boys to detective games, and which alarms Gwennie’s mother, who seems troubled by both the gossip and Ifan’s disappearance.
As Gwennie attempts to figure out what’s happening, she learns that secrets aren’t necessarily secret, especially in small towns where everyone knows everyone else. Sometimes even science intervenes to reveal that the truth isn’t exactly what it seems. But, being a child, she doesn’t always know what she’s looking at.
Strachan offers up a lot of story in this book, and some of it is charming and rather clever. For example, I really liked the storyline involving the black dog, even if I recognized what was going on right away. I don’t think it was meant to be a mystery so much as an example of how Gwennie is growing up and learning to understand what she sees and hears.
But I found the book ultimately overworked and unconvincing. It’s one of those books that feels like it’s trying too hard all the way through. The flying, for instance, seems to be a way of showing how imaginative and free-spirited Gwennie is. It comes up again and again, and Gwennie is absolutely committed to the idea that she can literally fly. It doesn’t seem like magical realism where these things just happen and that’s that, but the flying is also not clearly a figment of Gwennie’s imagination. The novel’s lack of commitment regarding whether the flying is real ends up being a distraction, especially when the flying gimmick seems so unnecessary.
And I think it’s the gimmicky nature of the story that kept me from fully committing to it. I can enjoy a family saga told by a quirky child narrator, but I have to find that narrator and that story convincing, even when they can’t possibly be real. I have to forget the guiding authorial hand trying to make it all work. This seemed like a book, not a story of people who could exist in a time and place where children fly.