I’m probably one of very few people in the UK who hasn’t read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – the mention of Rachel Joyce always has everyone telling me how wonderful it is, and I have to say it remains a pleasure yet to come. But a few months ago I had the joy of re-reading another of her books, Perfect, with my book group, and remembered how very much I enjoyed Rachel Joyce’s writing (you can read my original review here). And then I remembered that I had a copy of her latest, The Music Shop, on my kindle, and hadn’t got round to either reading it or listening when it was Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. As chance would have it, The Music Shop is published in paperback by Black Swan on 22nd March – and next Monday I’m at Betty’s in York for afternoon tea, and to hear the author talk about her book. So I’ll have the heaven sent opportunity to tell her in person how I felt about this wonderful book – without a moment’s hesitation, I’ve found another to add to my list of Books of the Year.
‘A beautiful novel, a tonic for the soul and a complete joy to read.’ Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.
1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.
Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.
Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …
‘Hits all the right notes…a love story that’s as much about the silences between words as what is said – the spaces between people that can be filled with mystery, confusion and misunderstanding as well as hope.” Observer
Music has an immense power – to move you, to break you, to raise your spirits, to plunge you into the depths of despair, to fill your heart with joy – and its impact is central to this wonderful book. Frank’s ability to choose music that perfectly fits the needs of the diverse cast of characters who he meets or who cross the threshold of his record shop in a dilapidated street in an un-named town – whether Aretha, smoky jazz, a violin concerto, or a disco track – is a wonderful and original concept I found absolutely enchanting.
The characters themselves are exquisitely drawn – all a little broken, distinctly damaged people, some with their background stories shared, all with their lives enriched by their contact and interaction with Frank with his big heart and his passion for music on its original vinyl. I loved Frank himself – the scenes from his childhood where his mother shared her passion for music but was totally incapable of showing love were incredibly moving, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, sometimes joyous when the music soared and filled the spaces. His awkwardness is just wonderfully captured – particularly in his interactions with the beautiful and enigmatic Ilse – and the moments of humour (and there are many) are always tempered by the lump in your throat, there because you come to care for him so much.
There were other characters I took to my heart too. I must mention Kit, Frank’s over-enthusiastic assistant, employed by Frank because he would never have survived life on the food factory production line, with his ability to break everything he touches and his production of posters and badges (all mis-spelled) to cover every situation. Meeting him again in later life was an absolute joy. And then there’s the spiky tattooist, the undertaker twins, the elderly lady who comes in humming tunes for Frank to identify, the Polish baker, the ex-priest with his immensely touching back story, the cafe waitress who becomes increasingly involved in Frank and Ilse’s relationship – the whole community is just perfectly drawn in every detail.
The backdrop too is vividly captured – the unnamed town in the late 80s, Unity Street ripe for redevelopment, the odour of cheese and onion permeating everything from the nearby food factory, the atmosphere of menace, the racist graffiti appearing nightly. The timeframe shifts to the present day – the proliferation of discount chains, the soulless shopping centre with its plastic foliage, all acutely observed.
And then there’s the story itself, very cleverly constructed with its four “sides” and a hidden track at the end – and a musical climax in the fourth section that grabbed me by the heart, totally joyous and quite perfectly done.
This book was tender and tremendously moving, beautifully written, and left me with both a smile and an ache around the heart that the story had to end. Its characters, the central love story, its music and its silences will live with me for a very long time.
I was also delighted to find that there is a playlist for the book on Spotify – a perfect addition, now added to my personal favourites…
About the author
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestsellers The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and a collection of interlinked short stories, A Snow Garden & Other Stories. Her work has been translated into thirty-six languages.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Rachel was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012 and shortlisted for the ‘UK Author of the Year’ 2014.
Rachel has also written over twenty original afternoon plays and adaptations of the classics for BBC Radio 4, including all the Bronte novels. She moved to writing after a long career as an actor, performing leading roles for the RSC, the National Theatre and Cheek by Jowl.