Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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Book review: “The Bottle Factory Outing” by Beryl Bainbridge

This was my January pick for my 2019 Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme for this month being a humorous novel. I hadn’t read any Bainbridge before and had read that this was considered a comic masterpiece and was in fact shortlisted the Booker Prize in 1974 when it was first published (Bainbridge had no less than four novels shortlisted). This book also won the Guardian Fiction Prize.

So, the book has a pedigree and I had high expectations. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. Perhaps it’s partly timing; I posted a review last week of The Overstory, a book which I found breathtakingly good, and which I completed just before starting this one and I fear that it suffered somewhat in comparison. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for humour after that! I seem to remember having similar feelings about the books I read immediately after completing Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a couple of years ago. There are some books which just need a little more time to sit with you before you launch into something else.

The Bottle Factory Outing imgIn summary, this book is set in the late ‘60s, early 70s and is about Freda and Brenda, two young women who work together in a London factory where Italian wine is bottled. They also live together in a pokey bedsit, and share a double bed at nights. Freda is blonde, buxom and outgoing, sexually frustrated and of a romantic inclination. She has the hots for Vittorio, the nephew of the factory’s Italian owner, and fantasises about being seduced by him, contriving situations to enable this. Brenda is a redhead, but mousey in personality, timid and sexually repressed. She has left her drunken husband Stanley in the Yorkshire farmhouse which they shared with his domineering mother. Freda and Brenda met after Brenda had a tearful outburst in a butcher’s shop. Freda took her in and got her a job at the factory. Freda can be kind but also cruel and the book is as much about the complex nature of relationships between women as anything else.

Almost all the other factory workers are Italian, expect Patrick, an Irishman who seems to be quite protective towards Brenda. The first quarter or so of the book is spent setting the scene before the ‘outing’ takes place. The outing, which was supposed to be by coach to a stately home, was Freda’s idea and was simply one of her plots to try and get Vittorio to declare his passion for her. Inevitably, things start to go wrong when the expected coach does not arrive and some workers have to go home while others pile into cars, and the outing turns into farce. It is a cold and bleak October day, so Freda’s fantasy of a sunlit picnic and strolling through romantic gardens with her hoped-for lover were never going to be realised. The other side-plot is that Brenda is being relentlessly pursued by the (older and married) Rossi, manager of the factory. At work he is always trying to get her into compromising situations.

The outing occupies most of the rest of the book. Inevitably, not all goes to plan and there is a dramatic and unexpected twist, which I won’t spoil by sharing with you. There is definitely humour, but it is very dark. By coincidence, there was a BBC radio broadcast of the story (abridged of course) in mid-January, where the wonderful Maxine Peake and Diane Morgan took the parts of Freda and Brenda, respectively, and Sue Johnstone (masterful) narrates. They drew out both the humour and the tenderness very effectively. In fact I enjoyed the broadcast slightly more than the book! I think this was because the ironic interpretation came across more strongly (the process of abridging perhaps?) and that felt more satisfying for a 21st century reading. Clearly we still have quite a way to go when it comes to gender equality, but you forget how bad things were only 40-50 years ago. In the context of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment of women in the workplace is more difficult to find funny. Perhaps I am being far too earnest!

I enjoyed the book, but must confess that reading it did at times make me a bit uncomfortable. Which is a shame because I think it is a far more complex novel than a first (post-Overstory) reading allows. I think I need to read it again!

Hmm, what do you think?

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Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

the overstory img

It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

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Book review: “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan

I haven’t read that many books by Ian McEwan – about four I think, not as many as I would like. Each time I read one, I am so overwhelmed by the quality of the work, the writing, the ideas behind each novel, that I wonder why on earth I haven’t read every single thing he’s written, especially as most of them aren’t terribly long. I’ve just finished The Children Act which was my book club’s choice for January. I read it in just a couple of days; the story was not only utterly compelling, but the prose was a joy. McEwan’s easy brilliance just draws you in and I found it hard to put down – one of those books you just have to pick up while you wait for the kettle to boil, just to enjoy the next couple of paragraphs. I felt similarly about On Chesil Beach which I read in 2017, but I’d go so far as to say this book is even better.

The central character is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family law division. She is considered brilliant at her job. She deals with both high-profile celebrity divorces, as well as complex and difficult cases. Not just difficult, but the kinds of cases that most of us would find virtually impossible to adjudicate, such as one particularly challenging case we are told about of two conjoined twin babies. Left together, both would eventually die, but separation would mean doctors could save the stronger of the two, but with the certain and immediate death of the weaker one. In essence, killing one baby to save the other. Fiona reaches conclusions on these kinds of impossible moral dilemmas.

Fiona is 60 and married to Jack, an academic. They have no children, but plenty of nieces, nephews and god-children. They seem settled in their comfortable, affluent, London life until, on the eve of a difficult case, Jack announces that he is finding their marriage sexually unsatisfying and would like to go and have a final fling while he still has it in him. Fiona is horrified and they argue bitterly. The evening ends with Jack leaving the flat, to go off to the young woman he plans to have an affair with, Fiona presumes.

The case over which Fiona is about to preside is an urgent one and she must immediately switch off from her marital crisis in order to focus on her work, where she feels in control.

“No denying the relief at being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems.”

The case on which she is being asked to rule concerns Adam Henry, a teenager, three months short of his 18th birthday, who has leukaemia. His proposed treatment involves a combination of drugs which will also require him to receive a blood transfusion, but, as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents object to this course of action, and so, it is reported, does Adam. The hospital wants to proceed with the remaining treatment and the transfusion, and to do so immediately in order to save his life, and wishes the Court to rule that, as a child, he can be forced to have it (if he were an adult he would have the right to refuse treatment). Fiona hears the evidence from all sides and decides that before reaching her decision she will visit Adam. The visit affects Fiona deeply, more than she will realise.

It is tense reading as we wait to find out what Fiona will decide. No spoiler here, I won’t tell you her conclusion. Suffice to say that her decision has repercussions, which are primarily about her going through a kind of breakdown, of all that she has believed and taken for granted up to now, and this affects also how she responds then to Jack and the situation of their marriage.

This is both a touching and deeply affecting novel about one woman’s internal struggles and about human relationships in general and the nature of marital love in particular. And at the end we are invited, in a way, to judge Fiona, the Judge. McEwan has some brilliant turns of phrase which left me breathless with admiration and his economical style of writing makes him highly accessible and exciting to read.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

Which McEwan shall I read next? What is your personal favourite? 

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Book review: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

This book has certainly captured headlines since it was published in November. It was abridged and serialised on Radio 4 the week it came out. I caught a couple of the episodes, but this was merely a taster since, having now finished reading it, at over 400 pages, they gave only the very edited highlights. I do not normally go in for celebrity memoirs, and one could be quite cynical about the enormous deal that has been struck by the Obamas and their publishers (though I gather they are donating royalties to charity). However, very early on in the book any cynicism I might have had melted away.  I have no idea what help Michelle had in writing this book, but it does not ‘feel’ ghost-written. Her narrative voice is very authentic – warm and compassionate, the same way that she comes across when she speaks.

becoming imgMy book club chose this for our pre-Christmas read (I’ve only just finished it!) and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s long, and perhaps could have been edited somewhat, but I imagine the main buyers of this book will be Michelle-fans who want as much detail as possible. The first part of the book was, for me, the least engaging. My fellow readers and I were a little surprised to learn that Michelle Robinson did not in fact come from an affluent background. She was a ‘Southsider’ – from a part of Chicago that was fairly blue-collar and largely African-American, and became more so as she grew older and some of the white residents moved out. A picture is painted of a family with strong values around hard work, doing the right thing, caring for others and loyalty to family. Michelle excelled in school through hard work, determination and the support of her parents and attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She has never forgotten her humble beginnings, however, and this underpins her commitment to equality and social justice. However, I did feel this part of the book was most descriptive; in the context of the book as a whole I can see why it would have been important to her to put her politics in perspective, but it was a tiny bit…pedestrian?

Michelle met her husband, Barack Obama, while she was working at a law firm in Chicago, and the development of their relationship forms the basis of the second part of the book. It’s a lovely romantic story, and they are clearly deeply committed to one another. However, it did not come without some pain. Much has been made of their difficulties conceiving a child (both daughters were born after IVF treatment) and of their seeking relationship counselling. What I found most interesting, however, was how Michelle has wrestled with and had to reconcile herself to, the role that being the spouse of a high-profile politician, then a Senator, then a President, has meant for her own career ambitions and her life as a parent.

The challenges of this dilemma are thrown into sharpest relief in the later chapters of Part Two where Barack Obama makes his bid for the US Presidency in 2007/8. The way that Michelle was treated is both fascinating and appalling. How she coped is beyond me, and it is to her enormous credit that she was able to rise above the racist and misogynist vitriol that came her way. I suspect those things ultimately made her stronger. Since Barack Obama left office in 2016, there have been calls from many quarters for Michelle to consider running at some point in the future, to which she has repeatedly said she never would (she states this explicitly in the final pages of the book). When you read her personal reflections in the 2008 campaign you can see fully why she is not made for that particular political bear-pit. She is a much better person than that and working towards a bigger picture than the short-termism associated with political elections.

As my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s  growing political stature, which was painful to read. 

The final part of the book looks at her life in the White House. As she writes in the opening lines:

There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.

As with most things in her life, Michelle Obama had to find her own way. In some ways that must be a liberating position to be in – having the freedom to write your own job description (the present First Lady has taken a somewhat different approach) – but for Michelle Obama there was the deep hostility she had to contend with, not just the political opposition, but the more personal, racist, misogynist and body-shaming tone she also endured.

I understood…that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. 

When the book was published, commentators pounced upon her comments about the present incumbent of the White House, looking for something juicy. Yes, there are some criticisms, as you might expect, and sadly the echo chamber rather defines the politics of the age – most of us prefer to read or listen to people who reflect the views we already hold. But what struck me in fact was the restraint, and the most chilling comment was that Michelle Obama will never forgive Trump and his team for placing the life of her husband and her daughters in danger. This sums up the book, and the woman, for me; it’s family, loved ones, values first, politics second.

If you’re a Michelle fan you’ll love this and have probably read it already anyway! If you’re objective there is still much to enjoy here and there’s no doubting the courage, integrity and sheer grit of the woman. She is undoubtedly a role model to us all.

What did you think of Michelle Obama’s memoir? 

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YA book review – “The Hurting” by Lucy van Smit

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of literature for children and young people and that I review such books on here from time to time, not just because I think it’s good for ‘grown-ups’ to delve into these genres (you’re missing out if you don’t), but also because I know many of you often want recommendations for the youngsters you live with.

I picked up The Hurting from my local library recently (most now have online catalogues with a ‘What’s New’ section so you can browse new titles) and libraries are great for young readers because, unlike me, they often make a quick decision about whether they like something or not and if a book is worth their time, so it can be frustrating when they toss something aside after half an hour that you’ve paid £6 plus for!

Lucy van Smit is a first-time author and the publisher, Chicken House Books, has a good reputation for quality fiction for young people. It’s a YA book, for 15+ I’d say, as there are sexual references, some swearing, quite a bit of peril, and some challenging themes – cancer, alcoholism, death of a parent – all high-grade emotional stuff that teens seem to love! For me, it’s not the best YA book I’ve read this year, but then I’m judging it against The Disappearances, which I think is a phenomenal book, and Just Fly Away, which had a more concise and coherent plot and was for me more enjoyable. There is a lot going on in this book, perhaps too much.

The Hurting imgNell is in her late teens and lives with her father, a very religious alcoholic, and her sister, Harper, who has cancer. They are from Manchester but moved to Norway, ostensibly for Harper’s medical treatment. The girls’ mother, we learn, left when they were young and they have had no contact since. Nell is a confused young woman; she is the primary carer for her sister, their father either working or incapable most of the time, and she wants to be a singer-songwriter back in Britain, but finds herself cut off from any possibility of making a career in that field. She attends a local school where she experiences bullying and isolation. She decides to go back to the UK, without her family’s knowledge, for an audition, but gets into a spot of bother en route and meets Lukas, a handsome but mysterious boy. At first it appears he rescues her but we learn later that he in fact engineered the whole episode in order to entrap her.

There is an instant attraction between Nell and Lukas and Nell quickly falls in love with him. Lukas pursues Nell (and yes, that is the right word), and she is drawn into what can only be described as an edgy relationship with him. It turns out that Lukas is the son of the late Harry Svad, a Norwegian minerals entrepreneur (and Nell’s father’s employer who, mysteriously, her Dad seems to hate). Svad, along with his wife Rosa, has recently been killed in a helicopter crash. Lukas was not his biological son, however; he was discovered as a very young child living in a wolf pack in an area of forest Svad wanted to mine. Svad ‘rescued’ and adopted him, but Lukas cannot forgive him for killing the wolves he loved, and says he was also treated cruelly. This draws Nell further into a web of sympathy. Lukas has a baby brother, Pup, who, now an orphan, is in the care of social services. Lukas wants to adopt him when he turns 18 (very soon) but feels he needs to get Pup back now before events spiral out of control, and he says that by the time they catch up with him, he’ll be 18 so he’ll be able to adopt without a problem. By this stage he is well able to coerce Nell into kidnapping Pup from the foster carer.

Still with me? Yes, I struggled to suspend my disbelief too, but I suspect some young people would not! Nell goes along with Lukas’s plan, they kidnap the baby and then run away, back to the grand, extraordinary but isolated Svad home, via stolen car and light aircraft. They are pursued of course, though Lukas is careful to shield Nell from too much contact with the outside world where CCTV images of her are being splashed across news screens.

Spoiler alert: once at the Svad home, Nell begins to realise that Lukas has tricked her, that he actually wants to kill Pup, and frame her, and yet she cannot reconcile these facts with her intense passion for Lukas, the only person who appears to have shown her any love. His behaviour frightens her sufficiently, however, that she decides to escape with Pup (who it turns out is her half-brother, his dead mother, Rosa Svad, having also been Nell’s estranged Mum) but this involves a perilous trek through dangerous wolf-inhabited forest. With a baby.

Yes, there is a lot going on here; rather too many events, strands and themes for my liking, and I felt a bit overwhelmed. It rather lost me in the last third of the book, I’m afraid. However, for teens who need a lot of stimulation to keep their interest, this may suit. As I said, I found it hard to believe in the events, but, again, teens who like a touch of fantasy may be able to lose themselves in it and be more forgiving about the lapses in credibility. There were, in my view, some editorial oversights which annoyed me (including a frustrating number of typographical errors, grrr!), but most teens will overlook these. I loved the evocation of place – Norway provides a great setting for the book – and the author does well to convey the sense of threat as well as beauty in the natural world. Nell is a great character and her vulnerability and confusion, her difficult life, and her thwarted dreams may have a resonance for young people. Also, her journey, her survival against the odds and her ability ultimately to overcome her fears, some seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the effects of her first-love blindness, make her a positive role-model.

Recommended for the young people in your life, even if it wasn’t quite for me.

Have you read any good YA titles recently?

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Book Review – “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

I posted on here last week about my brain needing to have a little break from the Man Booker shortlist (especially as I have not found all the books particularly engaging so far). It is a rather bleak shortlist. I have also been unwell for a couple of weeks with sinus problems, and none of these books are exactly a ‘pick me up’! So, on a day when I was feeling particularly sorry for myself I lay down on the sofa with The Music Shop, my book club’s reading choice for November, and read the whole thing in one sitting. I loved it!

This book caught my eye last year, so it has been on my mental TBR list for some time. In September I attended a one-day conference run by the group that publishes the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook on how to get your book published (almost finished my novel), at which Rachel Joyce was a speaker. Rachel came to novel-writing relatively late in life, coming to prominence only in her late 40s (encouraging!) when her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) was widely acclaimed, and in fact found its way onto the Man Booker Longlist. Rachel came across as a lovely, down to earth human being, but with her own fascinating story to tell, and a warm and inspiring approach to all the novice writers in the room. I bought The Music Shop at that event.

The Music Shop imgThe books open in 1988 when the central character Frank opens a music shop in a rundown area (Unity Street) of an unnamed city. Frank is passionate about music, something that was instilled in him by his late mother, the eccentric Peg. It is probably the only the good thing that Frank got from her, and as the book goes on, we learn much about the lack of love and security in his childhood. This is important as it helps us to understand Frank’s actions later on. The other thing that Frank is passionate about is vinyl; he refuses to sell either cassette tapes or the new-fangled CDs in his shop, much to the chagrin of the salesmen who tell him he is a dinosaur and will have to change with the times. They gradually abandon him.

Unity Street is run-down and regularly vandalised. There are only a handful of businesses, all of them marginal and barely surviving, such as the small shop selling religious souvenirs, run by a former priest, the tattoo parlour run by the indomitable punky Maud, and the two brothers running the funeral parlour. It is a street of misfits and Frank, with his assistant Kit – clumsy, loveable, naïve – slots right in. It is the ‘80s, however, and Britain is changing. Property developers are anxious to get into Unity Street, for the residents in their run-down houses and the shop-owners barely making ends meet to leave and to bulldoze the whole area to make way for shiny new apartments.

One day, Frank meets Ilse Brauchmann. First, she faints outside his shop. The traders all rally round to help her. Frank is immediately attracted to her, which throws him into a tailspin as this is something he has never felt before. Frank has no self-esteem and does not believe she could possibly feel the same way about him. Ilse, however, leaves her handbag behind in the shop. Kit and the others make great efforts to track Ilse down, fascinated by her mysterious presence, though Frank is nonchalant. They find Ilse and draw her into their community.

Eventually, after some false starts, Ilse, on hearing how Frank has changed the lives of so many of his customers by bringing music to them, asks him to teach her about music. They begin to meet weekly in a café where Frank’s confidence gradually builds as he talks about the one subject he knows, that he feels confident about and which enables him to be his true self.

Their burgeoning relationship is destined to fail, however, as they stumble from one misunderstanding to another, because of Frank’s fear, but also because there seems to be something about Ilse that she is not revealing.

This book is a love story, but it is a roller-coaster of one, that will take you on twists and turns you cannot anticipate. It kept me absolutely gripped – I was at times so frustrated with both of them, but also deeply moved by their respective stories and the things I as the reader knew were getting in the way. The ending is not what I was expecting at all.

It is also a story about something softer and gentler which we lost when certain powerful commercial forces came and took over our towns. To that extent this book is much more than a love story, it succeeds on so many other levels too. The Unity Street traders are all lonely people who have had their troubles in life. They are all ‘the left-behind’ but they have each other and they are rich, nuanced, powerful characters in their own right and mostly have the last laugh.

I recommend this book highly. A great story which is truly uplifting. It will make you laugh at times and it may also make you cry.

Have you read The Music Shop? If so, what did you think?

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