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
Publication: Doubleday, contemporary fiction