At roughly 2p.m. on the 9th of June 1999, on a small street in Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl called Melissa Comb dies of complications arising from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Immediately afterwards, all the residents on the street experience the same musical hallucination: starting with a high-pitched shriek, they feel compelled to leave their houses, whereupon they all hear – or think they hear – the same piece of beautiful orchestral music.
Melissa is about this collective musical hallucination, and its aftermath over the following year. Whilst everyone’s gaze seems fixed on what becomes known as ‘The Spark Close Phenomenon,’ nobody seems to notice what’s happening to the family at the centre of it all, as it quietly disintegrates in the wake of Melissa’s death.
I have no idea what prompted author Jonathan Taylor to approach me to read and review Melissa, published by Salt Publishing in September 2015. After all, my usual review books tend more towards rom-coms, thrillers and the rather lighter end of contemporary writing. But I’m so very pleased he did – I thought it was quite wonderful. It certainly reminded me that it hurts none of us to push the boundaries of what we choose to read from time to time – I really must do it more often.
Tomorrow, I have a fascinating in-depth interview with Jonathan – today I’ll simply focus on this stunning book with my review…
Every now and then, I sit at my keyboard to write a review and feel as if it’s something I’ve never done before. To match a book that has swept me away and moved me deeply, I feel like I have to step things up a little, make my insights more meaningful, my language a little more carefully chosen, and I become incapable of writing anything at all. So I’m going to keep things simple – I found this book absolutely stunning, and I’m going to concentrate on how it made me feel.
There are moments within this book – often linked with intense grief – that I think will remain with me for ever, wonderful moments that moved me to tears. There’s a vividly described scene at Melissa’s funeral where her father Harold sits with his hands poised over the piano – Melissa’s mother Rose trying to understand a specialist’s complex explanation of Melissa’s illness and the prognosis – another where an argument takes place over the appropriate person to be given the leg of the turkey at dinner – and yet another where two sit side-by-side on a piano stool. In fact, this book overflows with wonderful images – spiders, an illuminated planetarium, the cascade of a spilled bag of oranges, a blank television screen, the shared smile of two co-workers.
This is a book with a vast cast of characters in the many and varied residents of Spark Close, every one detailed to an amazing degree, every one entirely real, living and breathing. The phenomenon with which the book opens introduces them all, as they congregate in the street, driven there by their shared experience – everyone, that is, except Melissa’s family, who at the moment of her death are isolated by their grief. But I don’t want to over-emphasise that grief – although it’s the emotion on which the story turns, there are also moments of fun, of real joy, of incidents at which you smile and cringe, and other points where I actually laughed out loud. I said I wasn’t going to describe the many characters, but I must mention Kirsten, an absolute tour-de-force – perfectly drawn, probably the one resident you really wouldn’t want living next door, but totally mesmerising, both desperately sad and very funny.
The way this book is constructed is complex and fascinating – the central part a series of vignettes (“variations” in a musical context) focusing on members of Melissa’s immediate family, each one with a musical ebb and flow of its own. The sense of music is so strong that you feel the changes in tempo, volume and mood – the passages that reflect and repeat a theme, the key changes that startle you a little, the occasional pieces played fortissimo, the moments of diminuendo. There are whole chunks of this book that really shouldn’t work – the documentary style at its start, the long passages explaining the impact of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, the explanation of entropy in thermodynamics – but they most emphatically do.
I won’t pretend that I didn’t find this book a challenge at times – it’s not the easiest of reads for a whole range of reasons, both intellectual and emotional – but once I found myself caught up in its rhythm I just couldn’t set it aside. And when I finished reading the simply wonderful coda – the “afterwards” – I had an immense smile on my face and a feeling of absolute satisfaction. Do give it a try.
My thanks to the author for providing my reading copy of Melissa.
Jonathan Taylor is an author, poet, lecturer and critic. His books include the novel “Entertaining Strangers” (Salt, 2012), the memoir “Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself” (Granta Books, 2007), the poetry collection “Musicolepsy” (Shoestring, 2013), and the short-story collection “Kontakte and Other Stories” (Roman Books, 2013 and 2014). He is editor of the award-winning anthology “Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud” (Salt, 2012). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester, and co-director of arts organisation and small publisher Crystal Clear Creators. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.