When I picked this up I thought it was going to be an easy, gentle read. Which it was. But as it went on it started to get a bit more meat to it, and finally ended up packing quite a punch. I still think I'd classify it as a quiet, gentle read though, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. And in this case it wasn't because I loved this book.
Set in rural wales in the late fifties/early sixties, the central character is twelve and a half year old Gwenni who lives with her parents and her older sister, Bethan. Gwenni is a shy, introverted child whose two main passions in life are reading detective stories and watching the lives of people in her village. Ordinary enough so far, except that some of this people watching is done in a kind of mystical flying form, usually at night. On one of these strange episodes she sees a dead body floating in the baptism pool, although on that occasion, no body is found. A body is subsequently found in a different pool though, which becomes the crux of the story.
Gwenni starts the novel by spending a morning babysitting a neighbour's, Mrs Evans, children whilst she visits the dentist. Gwenni is attached to these children and becomes a real help to Mrs Evans when her husband disappears. Her kind nature, and her passion for detective novels makes her want to investigate the disappearance of Mr Evans, much to her mother's distress. But this is nothing new. Gwenni's mother is overly concerned about Gwenni, and that people might think she is odd because of the notions she gets, and the things she talks about. For example, flying, hearing the earth hum, rescuing the spirit of a dead fox worn as a stole to name just a few.
As Gwenni perseveres with her quest to discover what happened to Mr Evans, mainly by just piecing together fragments of conversations, family secrets and past history are revealed, involving madness, suicide, adultery, illegitimate children and murder. All fairly shocking stuff, especially in 1960's Wales! The truth of all matters is finally revealed, and I was left with a sense that secrets are never a good thing, revealing them is not always for the best either.
The two aspects that make this novel so good are the gradual revelations of family secrets, and the brilliant characterisation of the lives of people in a small village community. It really does give the reader a feel of what it may have been like to live in a place where everybody knew everybody else, and gossip was rife. Everybody knew every one's secrets even if they didn't know it themselves. Everybody gets along by not talking about things.
Gwenni's childhood attitude is central to this book. Without her, it would be a very simplistic story. The interest for the reader is not really in what happened to Mr Evans, as this is fairly obvious to the readers from early on in the story, but in how Gwenni observations lead her to come to her own conclusions. She grows up throughout the novel, both physically and mentally. She starts to move from just observing life, to actually wanting to know how those observations affect her life.
I think all that's left to say is that I loved this book. It was fantastic and considering I only picked it up as a bit of light relief between two fairly emotional books that can't be a bad thing!