Review: 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

Review: For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Awakening the ancient: an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch

for the winner

The age-old tale of Jason and the Argonauts: battle-hardened Greek heroes voyage to the far-off land of Colchis to fulfil a prophecy and capture the Golden Fleece, bringing back glory, inflated egos and even a girlfriend – however it’s told, it’s an exciting, timeless tale of trials and triumphs, but how do you breathe life into it today? In For The Winner, Emily Hauser awakens the ancient with an homage to the original myths, a new hero to cheer for, and an achingly human touch.

Reimagining a Greek myth means there’s a lot of ground to run: a host of Gods, the heroic Argonauts, an extensive map of far-off lands, but Hauser lets the exposition come from the most plausible place – the mouths of slaves, especially Atalanta’s feisty, faithful friend Myrtessa, who see it all first hand, and as a result it rarely feels forced. With such a wealth of myths to draw on, the paratextual material provided is not only immensely helpful but evidence of the depth of Hauser’s expertise, and whilst she honours the weight of history and writes with a erudite respect for her sources, she dives right to the heart of the story – the hustle of a marketplace, the exhaustion of an expedition, the sweet stickiness of an apricot – and even suggests some of it may be more lie than it is legend.

Atalanta is a Herculean hero, but she’s more heroic than he ever was: abandoned as a baby because she wasn’t a boy, her sure-footed, hard-fought fight to prove her worth as a woman in her own right is not only a refreshing take on an old tale, but as timely as it has ever been. This is about ambition, adventure, and a quest for equality, and Atalanta’s tale has a parallel in the goddess Iris, another woman waiting for her moment to win.

And, lastly, the greatest thing about this Greek retelling is that it is so alive. From the mortals – many of the men are all too recognisable as the ‘modern man’ with a golden cloak and a tan – to the Olympians – the narrative interspersed with italicised chapters from their perspective – and even the land, sea, and ships, everything is personified. The painful lashings on Atalanta’s palms elicit off the page, and the lashings of rain pour down on our heads as well as the heroes’. And not only that, but Hauser’s version focuses on friendship and family as much as fighting and fleeces, with prophecies and fate playing second fiddle to the very human power of choice and free will.  It’s a powerfully refreshing take on an age-old formula, and its hero has fought harder to be there than any other.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thank you Hannah! – published by Doubleday on June 15th 2017, buy from Foyles for £14.99

Review: Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

An artistic flourish captured in every character: Fiorato renders her models with radiant colour and rich meaning

crimson and bone

The red and the white: the colour of blood and bones, the crimson cape of Mary Magdalene, and the white camellias with their wilting petals and saccharine scent. These colours that haunt Marina Fiorato’s historical drama Crimson and Bone are also daubed across Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and the novels share more than just their hues, as tales of ‘whores’, high society, and (too) hospitable suitors. And though Annie Stride – the central scarlet woman who opens the story contemplating suicide on the Bridge of Sighs – claims to know little of artistic ‘composition’, ‘chiaroscuro’, or ‘character’, Fiorato is an artiste.

Annie Stride may be a pregnant, penniless prostitute on the brink – literally – of despair at the opening, but she soon blossoms into a character far beyond any Victorian cliche. Annie is no fantasist; she’s a steely fighter with an East-Ender’s straightforward honesty, and Fiorato paints each mood, motivation and memory with the detail of a master rendering his muse. And it is into a muse she blooms beneath the fingertips of her benefactor Francis, an upperclass artist who offers her his home and a hand down from the parapet. Whilst he plays the doting but dispassionate husband, he paints Annie as a host of damned women, from Mary Magdalene to Marguerite Gautier, and moulds her into his very own la traviata.

With all this painting, Francis and Annie flee to Florence to find inspiration and ink, and there they find Fiorato’s finest creation, the Rainbow Man. With as many coloured pigments in bottles around his neck as brightly coloured panels on his coat, he brings colour to Francis and a colourful companionship to Annie, all mixed in with a slick of suspicion. Suspicions aside, Fiorato also crafts a host of memorable supporting characters: from Mary Jane, Annie’s dearly departed partner-in-crime whose poignant , almost companion tale is told in a diarised, ‘found footage’-style format before every chapter, to the talkative Italians that tend to Annie and Franics in Florence, and a rendering of a real-life artist’s model, Lizzie Siddal, hauntingly illustrated as waning like the moon while hanging on the arm of her soon-to-be husband; and while Siddal may be all skin and bones, every character Fiorato creates is fully fleshed out.

As adept at landscapes as she is portraiture, Fiorato captures both the broad strokes and detailed textures of the novel’s backdrops. The dark, dank shadows of Annie’s London are the seedy underbelly of Francis’s bold and bright society, and, initially, only the city’s famous bridges can bridge the space between them. If London is both light and dark, Florence is both warm and wintry: the sun shines but Annie’s time there is characterised by a longing and loneliness that only colour can change. And their voyage to Venice is an artistic one – to see the opera La traviata – a device that Fiorato so deftly weaves in amongst the lingering whiff of white camellias, and whose Lady gave life to the opera.

And captured in every character and locale is Fiorato’s artistic flourish: a true chiaroscurist, she renders her models not only with radiant colour but rich meaning; it’s not just crimson and bone, but every shade of red on the spectrum – from ruby to rose, garnet to scarlet, brick to blood – and each brought to life with white light in the eyes and on the waters, and shaded with the blackest shadows beneath the bridges.

– from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks again to Emily!– published by Hodder and Stoughton on May 18th 2017, buy from Foyles for £17.99

Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway

Happy Publication Birthday, Mrs Dalloway! First published on this day, May 14th, in 1925 by the Woolfs’ publishing house, Hogarth Press; this new Penguin Vintage Classics edition has the most beautifully abstract cover and you can click to buy it (as I’m about to) here!

gender in mrs dalloway

In her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf defies contemporary expectations of gender with an unfearing portrayal of homosexual relationships, especially between Clarissa and Sally and Septimus and Evans. The publication of sexologist Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion in 1897, whilst suggesting for the first time in Victorian medical study that homosexual behaviour was the ‘manifestation of an instinct which to [those] persons who possess it frequently appears natural and normal’[1], underscored the actuality that ‘in a country like England […] all our traditions and all our moral ideals, as well as the law, are energetically opposed to every manifestation of homosexual passion’[2]. Ellis notes the existence of a ‘compact social force which on every side constrains the individual into the paths of heterosexual love’[3], and this study will analyse how Woolf shapes, explores and strays from those pathways through Clarissa and Septimus’s same-sex interactions, their interruptions by the opposite sex, and the presence – or absence – of parenthood, as well as charting the effect changing feminist ideologies may have had on the 1925 novel, from the relative erasure of lesbianism and femininity in early studies of homosexuality to ‘post-First World War antifeminism’[4] with the ‘laud[ing] of motherhood’[5] in the 1920s. Continue reading “Essay: Defying Gender in Mrs Dalloway”

Review: The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel #RoanokeGirls

A gripping modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and a destructive, dynastic rule

roanoke girls blogDon’t be deceived by the cover design: there’s nothing rosy about The Roanoke Girls. Amy Engel’s novel is a gripping, modern Midwestern Gothic about secrets, sexuality, disappearances, and the destructive, dynastic rule of Yates Roanoke and his girls. The Roanoke Girls takes all those classic Gothic tropes and transposes them into a contemporary setting, with Roanoke, the ruined castle, at the centre: a rural Kansas farmhouse with an abundance of hallways, stairwells and framed photographs for the secrets to hide behind.

Like all good Gothic novels, secrets locked away for generations are at the heart of the story. Lane, one of the eponymous ‘Roanoke Girls’, returns to Roanoke for the first time since running away when she was sent to live there at sixteen after her mother’s suicide, summoned in the wake of her charming but troubled cousin, Allegra’s, disappearance. The past and present are woven together poignantly using two temporal perspectives – ‘then’ and ‘now’ – interspersed with chapters from the other ‘Girls’ as the secrets spill out. Whilst complex, the narrative has the texture of delicate lace, not clumsy knit, and nothing feels unnecessary – if it is a knit, it’s tight and intentional and intricate and twisted, in more ways than one.

Engel unfolds her mystery in gorgeous, gripping prose and metaphors that are unusual yet so uncomfortably, almost unbearably, alive. Turning the metonymy of horror on its head, rain lashing at the windows, howling wind and lightning overhead are reimagined – and the trope revitalised – as a searing summer heat that threatens to stifle the setting, Osage Flats, if the secrets don’t get there first. The novel reveals its hand early on, but this doesn’t spoil the suspense: the horror sticks to us like sweat on our foreheads, forcing us into the same position as Lane as she wrestles with ‘small-town suspicion’, how to respond to the revelations, and whether she, and we, should brace ourselves for more.

As such, the plot is less about the secret itself, and more about the devastating effect it has on Lane and the family’s lives and relationships; the horror feels real because the impact is as palpable as it is harrowing. Engel has real talent for making things feel tangible; her characters are all deftly crafted, flaws and all, and are equally damaged and damaging, dangerous and vulnerable, vengeful and forgiving, as seen in Lane’s childhood crush Cooper, with his rough hands and soft touch, Allegra’s besotted but suspicious ex-boyfriend Tommy, and ‘old coot’ Charlie, the farmhand who acts as both confidante and accomplice.

The only thing that isn’t alive are the ‘Girls’ themselves, but they haunt the novel’s halls as well as any Gothic ghost and fit interestingly into the Gothic ontology of women in distress, although none of them are fainting damsels. The Roanoke Girls bleeds from the same vein as The Virgin Suicides, it’s ‘a lot of dead girls’, after all, and Rebecca, as the mystery of a missing woman revolves and unfolds under one roof that’s dreamed of in the very first sentence; as both works nurtured the Gothic in the 20th century, Engel waters it again now: growing it into the Midwest, the post-modern, and, perhaps, the only remaining unmentionable. As for those roses on the cover, the epigraph over the page reveals their own secret: ‘look at this tangle of thorns’.

– spoiler free review from an uncorrected proof copy – thanks to Emily! – published in the UK on 9th March 2017 by Hodder and Stoughton (2017), buy from Foyles for £12.99