Reviewed by Annabel
This certainly is the year for novels about popular music, particularly on vinyl, and also the power of picking just the right song. Of those I’ve come across, there is Magnus Mills’ droll and geeky The Forensic Record Society, Laura Barnett’s soundtrack of a life in Greatest Hits and the first of French author Virginie Despentes’ post-punk Vernon Subutex novels just for starters. We can also add Rachel Joyce’s fourth novel to that list. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl may have influenced the common theme of these books but they’re all totally different in their approach.
The Music Shop starts in 1988 – that crossover period where CDs were pushing vinyl out of record shops. Frank’s record shop, which is not in a prime location in town, is situated in a backstreet parade alongside Maud’s tattoo parlour, Father Anthony’s religious knick-knacks shop, Mr Novak’s bakery and the Williams brothers’ funeral parlour; the florist had closed last month.
Frank only stocks vinyl. The reps come and offer him big discounts if he’ll take CDs too, but Frank isn’t interested, ‘We only sell VINYL!’ the poster in the window declares. A customer arrives, wanting Chopin…
The man shot a look over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening but they weren’t. Over the years, they’d seen everything in the music shop. There were the regular customers, of course, who came to find new records, but often people wanted something more. Frank had helped them through illness, grief, loss of confidence and jobs, as well as the more daily things like football results and the weather. Not that he knew about all those things but really it was a matter of listening, and he had endless patience.
What the customer doesn’t know is that he doesn’t want Chopin, he needs Aretha. Frank’s eighteen-year-old assistant Kit, leads him to one of the home-made listening booths. Frank was right, as usual.
In the opening chapters, we get to know Frank, Kit and meet the other shop-owners. Then, one day everything changes – a woman in a green coat stands outside the shop, looking in, face pressed to the window, then she disappears! She’s fainted. They carry her into the shop and when she comes to, they discover she is German, but disappears before they can find out more. Frank is profoundly affected by her though. When they discover she’s left her handbag behind, they know she’ll return.
Ilse does return, and Frank’s stomach turns somersaults; she’s wearing a ring though, she’s unavailable. Still, in two steps forward, one step back fashion, they gradually become friends. Ilse asks Frank to give her music appreciation lessons, to teach her about his love of music, the stories behind it and how to match it to your mood. Ilse remains quite mysterious, not giving much away. By this point of course we’re desperate for Frank and Ilse to get together properly. “She was unavailable and he was a write-off.” Will they? I’m not telling.
Alongside the main story, we have some flashbacks to Frank’s childhood, growing up with his single mum, Peg, who was entirely responsible for inspiring Frank’s musical knowledge. Peg loved music, (on vinyl), and taught him how to listen, about silence in music, the stories of the composer’s lives and much more. She died when he was fifteen. He’s now forty, and channels his mum’s love for music into everything he does still. She’d said:
“Music is about silence… the silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end… Because if you listen, the world changes. It’s like falling in love. Only no one gets hurt.”
The story of Frank and Ilse is set against tough times for the residents of Unity Street who, although united against the threat of redevelopment, find their shops being picked off one by one. Whatever happens though, Maud, Kit Father Anthony and the others are like a family who will always stay in touch, the sense of community that comes through in this novel is touching.
The thing I had worried about before reading this novel was whether Joyce’s musical knowledge was up to it. I needn’t have worried, Joyce has obviously listened to everything she mentions and in her note at the end she acknowledges the many music lovers, record shop owners and vinyl enthusiasts who helped. Whether it is Peg telling young Frank about Vivaldi ‘the red priest’, Frank picking Aretha for his Chopin-loving customer, or the song titles chosen for chapter headings, even as a bit of a music-geek, I loved Joyce’s choices and too learned how to listen to some of Peg’s favourites anew.
The story of Frank and Ilse reminded me of Em and Dex in David Nicholl’s One Day sometimes with all its on-and-offs. If you’ve read Joyce’s bestselling first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you’ll expect resolution of a kind, with conflict, darkness, pain and redemption along the way as well as plenty of heartache. The Music Shop has more of the same, but I so enjoyed all the perceptive musical moments, I think I preferred it to Harold Fry.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and wishes she hadn’t sold (nearly) all her vinyl.
Rachel Joyce, The Music Shop (Transworld/Doubleday, 2017). 978-0857521927, 336pp., hardback.
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