Rating: 4.5 stars
Rachel Joyce is one of my favourite contemporary authors – I absolutely loved her recent collection of short stories, A Snow Garden, reviewed here earlier this year, as well as her three previous novels. She has the ability to make her characters feel utterly believable, so that readers become totally engaged with their lives, at times delighting in them and at others infuriated by them, just as we all are by friends and acquaintances. And, given that I also love listening to music, the idea behind The Music Shop instantly drew me in.
The hero of the book is Frank – a “gentle bear of a man” who owns a music shop with a difference.
His shop was often open into the night – just as it was often closed in the morning – music playing, coloured lamps waltzing, all sorts of people searching for records. Classical, rock, jazz, blues, heavy metal, punk … As long as it was on vinyl, there were no taboos.
Frank’s passion is music and he has an instinct for what music each customer or acquaintance will love or what each of them needs, when they themselves are often looking for something completely different. This unusual ability makes him a wide range of friends, who even include Henry, the bank manager who then offers him a loan and full business support for many years.
The Music Shop opens in January 1988, at a time when cassettes and CDs were rapidly replacing vinyl, with vivid descriptions of Frank and his shop, and of other shop owners and residents of Unity Street, including Maud the tattooist, Father Anthony who sells religious mementoes, the Williams brothers who run a long-established family funeral business (they are so touching in their love for one another – they “sometimes held hands like children”). Then there’s kind-hearted, well-meaning and generous Saturday Kit – “if you treated him like a young terrier sending him out for regular walks and occupying him with easy tasks, he was less liable to cause serious damage”. Rachel Joyce brings them all fully to life, so the reader has an understanding and appreciation of this little community, increasingly isolated from the changes happening within their town. Unity Street is under threat from developers and one by one the band of friends is broken apart.
When a stranger, Ilse Brauchman, walks into their lives (or, rather, falls, since at their first meeting she passes out), I initially found it hard to feel any empathy with her. Then I felt that she was supposed to be different and slightly odd and jarring – had we met the residents and shopkeepers of Unity Street one by one over many chapters, they would surely each have felt just as unusual. Frank’s long-established patterns of behaviour are broken apart by the threat from the developers, by the pressure being exerted on him to give in and sell CDs and cassettes, and finally by this chance encounter with Ilse. He arranges to give her music lessons each week in a cafe by the cathedral, The Singing Teapot, whose waitress is a gem of a character, watching Frank and Ilse’s weekly music lessons, shifting from reluctantly serving them tea or orange squash, over the weeks graduating to cooking them increasingly elaborate meals (she has “a potentially lethal passion for amateur cookery”). And at the same time as we are engrossed in the 1988 struggles in Unity Street, we also learn more about Frank’s highly unusual upbringing with his mother, Peg, and understand that he needs to have change forced upon him to heal ancient wounds.
I really enjoyed most of The Music Shop, all set firmly in 1988, but did initially have problems with the final section, entitled “Side D: 2009”, in which the action leaps forward by over two decades and resolution is needed for Frank, Ilse and other leading characters we’ve come to know, including Saturday Kit, who’s no longer a hapless teenager, prone to crashing into things, but a local radio DJ, a bit like Frasier but with music – Late Night Surgery. This closing section brings them all back together to heal Frank’s emotional wounds – but in a way I found at first a little too contrived. But then I thought again about the ending section – Hidden Track – with its warm glow at the reuniting of these wonderful characters! It’s a bit like a modern-day fairytale. Suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the music!
Reviewed by Daisy