Review published on July 29, 2017.
Ever since her debut The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry charmed readers and critics alike in 2012, scooping both a Commonwealth Book Prize nomination and a Man Booker nomination as well as taking the National Book Award for New Writer of the Year, Rachel Joyce has established herself as an author of big-hearted, life-affirming reads and in her latest novel, The Music Shop, she is once again on top form.
As the title suggests, at the epicentre of the novel is a music shop – but not just any music shop. Joyce transports us to the late 1980s, and the dawn of the CD, but in a quiet parade of independent shops stands a music shop whose owner, Frank, refuses to succumb to the modern, selling only vinyl, and whose knowledge of and love for music he passes on to all those who grace his offbeat store – and some who don’t. Frank is an aficionado but more than that he is a kind, generous man who wants to spread happiness through music and succeeds in doing so, introducing customers to everything from Handel and Bach to Aretha Franklin and The Sex Pistols, even though they wouldn’t have chosen the music themselves. Working alongside Frank is Kit, an (over-)enthusiastic and somewhat clumsy teenager who Frank rescued from a life of factory drudgery, and then there are his neighbours and friends, the scowling and sarcastic tattoo artist, Maud, the kindly ex-priest, Father Anthony, the prickly Mrs Roussos and the undertakers, the Williams brothers. This motley crew are the lifeblood of Unity Street but their little community is coming under increasing threat from developers and yobs. Yet Frank determines to stay put and then Ilse Brauchmann walks into his life and turns everything upside down.
With this dazzling cast of characters, not least Kit who you just can’t help but fall in love with, and the magical setting that is the music shop itself, Joyce creates a beautifully nostalgic and enviable world. And even if you’re not especially a fan of music, in Frank Joyce channels such passion and devotion that you really get a sense of the power of music, and there were a few occasions on which I was inspired to listen to the songs Frank eulogises. Joyce makes you wish you could pop along to Frank’s shop to have you very own music consultation and the knowledge and depth of musical detail she includes gives Frank a real sense of authenticity and identity. The only trick I think Joyce perhaps misses out on is giving a potted playlist from Frank at the end of the novel, but it’s certainly easy to create one as you go from all of the songs Frank mentions. Whilst music may be the leitmotif that anchors the novel, what really lifts Joyce’s book to the heavens is the style and charm with which she infuses the story. Her storytelling is effortless yet momentous and the beauty of what she writes is second to none, all culminating in one of the most stunning finales I’ve read in a while. Her novel may be a love letter to music but it is also testimony to her brilliance for creating subtle masterpieces of her own. She is very much the maestro of this wonderful ballad.
Jade Craddock 5/4
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce
Doubleday 9780857521927 hbk Jul 2017