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The Music Shop

posted on 11 Aug 2017

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

You might be tempted to think that Rachel Joyce’s latest novel owes something to, or shares similar territory with, that explored in Nick Hornby’s excellent 1995 classic High Fidelity -  but you’d be wrong. Admittedly there are a number of cosmetic similarities – both books feature a music obsessive who owns a record shop, both have a menagerie of curious individuals who buzz around the central character and both have a love story at their heart. But in temperament these two books are very different indeed. Where Hornby’s story spoke directly to the personal experiences and feelings of thousands of young men (yes, I do mean men specifically) and articulated a sensibility many shared emotionally but had never before seen articulated on the page, Rachel Joyce’s book come across much more as a gentle romantic fairy story.

Since her well-received first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Joyce has continued to explore the notion of redemption and her novels all have a gentle but slightly eccentric air of unreality about them. In The Music Shop we encounter the caring but damaged ( later we discover bit by bit just how damaged) Brian, a shambling gentle giant of a man who turns up in Unity Street – a backwater dive of a neighbourhood – and decides this is the perfect place for his music shop. The other ramshackle shops in the street are packed with ‘characters’ – a surly but loyal young woman who does tattoos, a defrocked priest, a baker, a florist and all of them struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Then there’s also Kit who comes to work in the record shop to save him from life in a factory. Brian fits right in and becomes the beating heart of this little community. He also has a knack for music therapy – other damaged individuals turn up at his shop to steered towards records that will change their lives.

But this is 1988 and things are changing. CDs are the new music format the industry is investing in but Brian is exclusively a vinyl man – he’ll have nothing to do with CDs regardless of the consequences. Brian’s dedication to vinyl and his unwillingness to countenance any other format is quite cunningly explored by Joyce as she invites us to consider the consequences of balancing on that thin line between loyalty, commitment and pig-headedness for its own sake.

Into Brian’s life comes the mysterious but beautiful Ilse Brauchmann – lovely and intriguing but also clearly damaged in an indefinable way. Inevitably, a constantly frustrating and frustrated romance takes root between Ilse and Brian which I’m not going to reveal details of because that would be a massive spoiler for anyone wanting to go off and read the book. The resolution of the story – which takes place in an updated 2009 – brings the romance into the modern world and you’ll want to discover for yourself how it all concludes.

In truth, the story is rather slight as many fairy stories often are. You’ll struggle with this book if you’re looking for gritty or naturalistic representations of real-life – the plot is shot full of logical holes and people do things that you just know they wouldn’t and, as with all fairy stories, you just have to go with it or put it down. In the end it’s all about emotion, the reconciling of  relationships and being prepared to examine yourself – rather like the experience of listening to the great music that’s always at the centre of the book.

Joyce’s love of music and her knowledge of the various genres she name-drops is impressive and fun. She lets herself explore the music through a very clever device in which she slowly unwraps Brian’s past, his relationship with his unconventional mother and the roots of his musical obsession in short flashbacks on pages written in italics. I personally found these brief but vivid episodes the most enjoyable part of the book.

I’m willing to bet that this book will split opinion – there will be those who will absolutely love it and those who will think it’s too whimsical, soft-centred and naïve. It’s a book I can’t really imagine I’ll ever read again but it was something I found almost perfect to read on a longish train journey and fitted rather neatly into the four or five hours I had to give it.

Terry Potter

August 2017