Reflection: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Listening for love: a symphony of heartfelt feelings, full of humour

music shop

Shakespeare once wrote, ‘if music be the food of love, play on’, but for Frank, the loveable, bearlike lead in The Music Shop, music is also the food of community, companionship, and change. A tale that’s heartfelt and full of humour, it revolves, like a vinyl record, around the turntable in Frank’s music shop, with Joyce unfolding her narrative like the needle: pointed, precise, but through which prose of such sweet simplicity can play – and it practically sings.

Music permeates not only the plot, but the prose, the characters, and even the chapter titles. The story centres on Frank, a consummate listener who listens to his customers’ emotional ailments until he can find them a cure in the form of a song, and it could be anything from Beethoven to the Pet Shop Boys. Frank listens not only to what his customers say, but what they don’t: he hears what music is sounding in their souls, and what’s most unsettling and frustrating for him is when there’s only silence, and it’s a mysterious muteness he finds in the green-coated, continually-gloved German Ilse Brauchmann. While a curious quietness envelops Ilse, Joyce never leaves us in silence; the chapter titles are often songs, and it weaves an inescapable rhythm into the novel until almost all the melodies are stuck in your head – with a whole new meaning to listen for after Frank’s enlightening music lessons – and you’re humming along as you read.

The hand Joyce offers to the reader to join in is just as friendly as the hands – and hearts – in her fictional community. On the aptly named Unity Street, Frank’s music shop is flanked by a host of fellow shopkeepers, each a lovingly crafted and fully-fleshed character: there’s Kit, the creative but haplessly clumsy helper in Frank’s shop, Father Anthony, a kindly, compassionate ex-Priest-and-alcoholic who always has a comforting hand to place on Frank’s stooping shoulders, and temperamental, tattooed Maud who has a kind heart under her covered skin. As far as a composition goes, they’re a real medley of tones, tempos, and times, and it doesn’t seem as though they’d be particularly harmonious, but Joyce makes them perform like a finely-tuned orchestra: sometimes in accord, sometimes cacophonous, but always together.

Yet, the community’s togetherness is threatened by change: from the closing of the shops on Unity Street – the scene where the shopkeepers sit on the street outside the shut-up bakery is a beautifully bittersweet show of solidarity – to Frank’s refusal to stock CDs. Frank finds the most solace in the stillness of his moments floating on the lake in a swan-shaped pleasure boat with Ilse Brauchmann beneath a moonlit sky, but he soon learns that life, like music – from songs to sonatas, even moonlit ones – must change. Joyce echoes the need for change when the narrative suddenly skips, like those inferior-sounding CDs, forward thirty years in the last third, in contrast to the flashes back to Frank’s unconventional childhood with his mother Peg, which are interspersed throughout like a counterpoint.

Music may be the food of love, but Joyce’s The Music Shop is much more than just a love-song; a symphony of heartfelt feelings performed by an orchestra of colourful characters, The Music Shop will make you want to listen closer, not only to music, but, like Frank, to your fellow man.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks to Alison! – published by Doubleday on July 13th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

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