A les­son in mu­sic ap­pre­ci­a­tion

An un­chal­leng­ing read is lifted to higher lev­els by the mu­sic knowl­edge that runs through it.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - 15 Minutes Of Fun - Review by MARTIN SPICE star2@thes­tar.com.my

THE im­pulse be­hind Rachel Joyce’s fourth novel was her hus­band’s in­som­nia.

“He went into a record shop called Sounds Good ... and the man who ran it said, “I know ex­actly what you need”. The mu­sic he chose was Perotin’s Beata Vis­cera, a French Baroque piece. And it worked.

How of­ten have we heard the phrase “mu­sic heals”? Well, in The Mu­sic Shop that is ex­actly what it does. Sort of. Even­tu­ally.

Frank, the pro­pri­etor, is a big lum­ber­ing man in a baggy suede jacket, and his shop is in a run­down street called, im­por­tantly, Unity Street. His is one of a line of busi­nesses cling­ing on by their fin­ger­nails to sol­vency de­spite low sales and lit­tle foot traf­fic.

A tat­tooist, two broth­ers run­ning a fu­neral par­lour, an ex-priest sell­ing re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy, a baker – th­ese are the washed up busi­nesses of a de­clin­ing street in an un­named cathe­dral city. The Unity Street shop­keep­ers stick to­gether but one by one are forced to sell to devel­op­ers as they are of­fered sums of money they can­not refuse.

The early parts of the book are set in the late 1980s when CDs are wip­ing out vinyl records. Small, com­pact, glossy and shiny, they are a prod­uct of their age. But Frank will sell only vinyl. Ob­sti­nately purist, he re­fuses the pres­sure of his sup­pli­ers to stock the new for­mat, putting his faith in what he loves un­til the record com­pany reps will have no more to do with him and he must find other ways of ob­tain­ing and mar­ket­ing his stock.

The day that a Ger­man lady in a green coat faints out­side Frank’s shop win­dow changes his life. “A feel­ing had welled up from some­where deep in­side him, he didn’t even know where, some place out in the shad­ows where things hap­pened from a dif­fer­ent time, or part of his life that he had left be­hind.” Frank may have an in­tu­itive genius for rec­om­mend­ing mu­sic to nur­ture the souls of oth­ers but his own past is black and filled with bag­gage that sti­fles his life in the present.

There are a num­ber of de­lights in this book but a con­sis­tent thread of them are the flash­back episodes in which Frank’s bo­hemian mother, Peg, talks to him about mu­sic. Peg is a lousy mother but she is an un­end­ing source of in­for­ma­tion and anec­dotes about a huge range of mu­sic and com­posers, from Bach’s botched cataract op­er­a­tion to Miles Davis’s nar­cis­sism. Her death weighs heavy on Frank, as do other strands of his past, and Frank’s way of deal­ing with this (or sup­press­ing it, if you pre­fer) is to de­vote his life to acts of kind­ness to oth­ers while keep­ing his own emo­tions firmly in check. Un­til the Ger­man lady in the green coat turns up, that is.

Ilse Brauch­mann has se­crets of her own and in­hi­bi­tions to match. None­the­less, she keeps re­turn­ing to Frank’s shop where she shows an ex­cep­tional abil­ity to mend things that are bro­ken. Her ev­ery visit is met with un­bri­dled pup­py­ish en­thu­si­asm by Frank’s hap­less as­sis­tant Kit, another of the book’s lit­tle trea­sures. Af­ter much per­suad­ing and not a lit­tle pre­var­i­ca­tion, Franks agrees to give Ilse mu­sic lessons. They will take place in a café and in­volve only Frank talk­ing about par­tic­u­lar records that he will bring with him. You do not have to be a genius to work out where this is go­ing, al­though there is more than the odd twist on the way.

I en­joyed The Mu­sic Shop more than The Un­likely Pil­grim­age Of Harold Fry (2012), the book that shot Joyce to an in­ter­na­tional level of fame that in­cluded longlist­ing for the Man Booker Prize and short­list­ing for the Com­mon­wealth Book Prize. The Mu­sic Shop shares much of that book’s quirk­i­ness and con­cern for the un­der­dog and washed-up but it has, in my view, both more con­vic­tion and more charm.

Its root­ing in a spe­cific (if un­named) com­mu­nity and city is in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able – we all know dead end streets, ar­eas, and peo­ple, be­cause, sadly, all cities are full of them. Joyce at­tracts our sym­pa­thy and our un­der­stand­ing in a way that was cer­tainly present in The Un­likely Pil­grim­age – but which I found more strained there than here.

The Mu­sic Shop is des­tined to be a good sum­mer read, un­chal­leng­ing and a lit­tle sen­ti­men­tal, but the el­e­ment that lifts it to far higher lev­els is the in­te­gral thread of mu­sic knowl­edge and ap­pre­ci­a­tion that runs through the en­tire book.

Joyce has said that this de­pended on a lot of re­search but it is re­search worn lightly and re­hashed anec­do­tally through both Peg and Frank.

From pop­u­lar mu­sic to clas­si­cal, there are in­sights and ob­ser­va­tions ex­pressed, of­ten poignantly, in Joyce’s clear, calm and sim­ple but mov­ing prose. So as a finale, let’s eaves­drop on part of Frank’s les­son with Ilse where he is os­ten­si­bly talk­ing about Dido’s Lament, writ­ten by Henry Pur­cell for his 1680 opera Dido And Ae­neas: “This is the sad­dest aria you will ever hear. It’s al­most the end and the one man Queen Dido ever loved has just left. He was her soul­mate. He was the one. And now he’s gone. She knows there’s noth­ing left ex­cept to die. This is what it sounds like when a heart breaks.”

The Mu­sic Shop Au­thor:


Rachel Joyce Dou­ble­day, con­tem­po­rary fic­tion

Photo: face­book.com/RachelJoyceBooks

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