by Katie Harling-Challis
‘There once was a music shop…’ begins Rachel Joyce’s latest novel. It is this music shop, on a little road called Unity Street in London, which is at the heart of Joyce’s novel and the characters which inhabit it. It is a novel about music, but it is also about the people who listen to and appreciate this music, making it understandable to both musicians and non-musicians alike. Readers will come away inspired by Joyce’s skillfully illustrated enthusiasm for the magic of listening, eagerly wishing to search for these intriguing pieces of music.
Frank, the protagonist, is the owner of this almost magical music store, with the ability to listen to both music and people. It is by inviting anyone and everyone into his shop and listening to their troubles that he is able to pick out the exact record to meet their emotional needs at that moment – and he only deals in records. Set primarily in 1988, Frank is resisting the rise of CDs by fighting for vinyl and its superior listening experience: “I don’t care what anyone tells me. The future’s vinyl.” Today, records are coming back, but Frank does not have this knowledge in his struggles. Joyce plays with this hindsight, exploring the life of vinyl through the lives of Frank and his customers.
Interspersed within the story set in the 1980s are chapters from Frank’s childhood. They are his memories of an unconventional mother, Peg, who taught him the power of listening. These memories contain the stories behind music which Frank tells to his customers, and to the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann. She appears one day and asks for music lessons, wanting Frank to teach her how to listen. Through Frank and his listening ability, music and emotions are joined together, informing the numerous relationships which exist in this novel. This is a novel about the relationships between a community. Unity Street is small, but it includes a tattoo parlour, a religious gift shop, a baker’s, a funeral parlour, a pub, and residential housing. Central to Joyce’s novel is the feeling of belonging. The book explores the struggles which a community faces together, especially their shared experiences of success, hope, and failure. At the heart of it all is Frank and his music shop.
Joyce’s idea of the music shop has the potential to become a little too fanciful as it verges on the unrealistic and idealistic in her musical descriptions. She counters this with the complicated lives of her characters and the faults which they all have, including Frank. Music is used to connect these characters, just as Frank connects one piece of music to another. In one music lesson he links sacred music by Pérotin, Tosca by Puccini, James Brown’s ‘Ain’t It Funky Now’ Parts 1 and 2, and Led Zeppelin’s IV. Crossing hundreds of years, Joyce, through Frank, finds patterns and relationships between what are often seemingly entirely separate pieces of music.
Above all, this is a novel about patterns in music, people, and life. When the baker’s shop is closed, Father Anthony, owner of the religious gift shop, leads the community of Unity Street in prayer: ‘Dear Lord. Please help us to understand what we don’t know. It is our differences that make us richer’. Joyce is encouraging us to find revealing connections in everything in life. She invites us to find community, even when we are living in a world of difference, by finding revelation in music: the language which we can all understand.
Image: Penguin Books and Faye Chua