The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce writes wonderful books. Not necessarily with the most beautiful, flowery language (although they are good words, honest and accessible) but with characters, plots and emotional sucker-punches which make me very, very happy. I’ve never met a Rachel Joyce novel (so far) that I didn’t love but, boy, do they bring a tear to the eye. In an oddly satisfying way. It feels quite hard to describe why I love these books so much beyond the fact that they get me right in the feels (as the kids no longer say…) – lets hope I can convince you to read them and find out for yourselves…

51yytgdLxSL._AC_US218_This book opens in 1988. In a music shop which is resisting the rise of CDs (although not modern music) and the march of progress generally. It is on a street with a small parade of the kind of shops which are closing down all the time – the book opens in a sort of dead-end. But it is the kind of glorious dead end that I, for one, would love to have on my doorstep. The owner of the shop, Frank, is a bit of a lost soul who is still mourning his beloved (but rather difficult) mother, who shies away from relationships and who, despite all this lives to help others through music. The man with the unfaithful wife who listens only to Chopin is reminded that he is not alone via the work of Aretha Franklin; a bank manager’s baby is lulled to sleep by The Troggs Wild Thing. He is, in the early days, pretty astute about music – he’s the only shop locally to stock the Sex Pistols and stocks all the big indy labels – but the rise of CDs is a problem. Frank won’t stock them and he becomes persona non grata with all the reps from record companies.

Of course, if this were just the story of a shop it wouldn’t be quite as satisfying (apart, possibly, to those of us who work in shops and have a vested interest) so there are also some fascinating characters to meet. Frank himself is a gentle, rather shabby, giant of a man who, despite trying to avoid relationships, is essential to the lives of all those around him. Then there are the other residents of Unity Street – a Polish baker, an ex-priest running a religious gift shop, a pair of elderly undertakers, a combative tattooist, little old Mrs Roussos – who are all given life and character and who all become part of Frank’s ‘family’ (for want of a better word). Add into this his hapless (but big-hearted) assistant Kit and a mysterious German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, and it seems that Frank hasn’t been able to avoid all relationships after all.

I loved this book because of those wonderful, warm and complicated human relationships. I loved it because it made me cry as much as it made me smile and I loved it for the music. Frank’s approach to music is unusual, to say the least, since he is possibly the total opposite of High Fidelity’s obsessive alphabetiser but his tastes are broad. I loved the fact that its four parts are presented as being the four side of a double album (a concept album, obviously). And, for my money, any novel which opens with a quote* from Nick Drake deserves all the praise I can give it…


*Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind

Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me



The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

cb0cb52e50aaf103a2d4b49bc41b6d9dI don’t know if it is my age but I am not ashamed to say that I was shedding the odd tear at certain points while I was reading this book. I read Harold Fry and enjoyed it very much but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the woman Harold walked so far to see – although both books share the same uplifting feeling (despite the waterworks….)

This is not a sequel or even a prequel to Harold Fry. I would describe it more as a companion piece, sitting quietly alongside the earlier story, offering support and clarification where needed, but not imposing. Which is pretty much the role Queenie took in the part of her life which directly involved Harold so I am quite pleased with that analogy! We see so much more of Queenie, however, than just her relationship with Harold. We get glimpses of her childhood, her education (a first in classics) and her life before moving to Kingsbridge (surprisingly racy – hanging out with artists and taking lovers) as well as after (a lonely beach house in Northumberland with a strangely beautiful garden). Queenie is a beautifully drawn character – so complex and so real. I think you can understand, by the end, why Harold walks over 600 miles to see her again. I think some of the tears I shed were in sorrow that I never got to meet such a remarkable, yet unobtrusive, woman.

Most of them, however, were for the situation Queenie finds herself in towards the end of her life. The situation which led her to send that first, life-changing letter to Harold and to her taking up residence in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her illness is touched upon but not in detail – in her original letter she says ‘Last year I had an operation on a tumour, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing to be done’ and I feel that sums up her stoicism. The real beauty of the book, for me, is the description of her days in the hospice and the people she meets there. We don’t get happy endings – this is a hospice after all – but we get to SEE the men and women who have gone there to die. The old are too often invisible in today’s youth-obssessed society – the old and the terminally ill can seem like an embarrassment – so it is just wonderful to have the honour of meeting not only Queenie but Mr Henderson, the Pearly King, Barbara and Finty. It is quite humbling to remember that every person in every hospice up and down the country has a story to tell if only we could hear them.

In the end I think that this book is very life-affirming. Although we witness so much illness, death and grief it is the lives which shine through – and any story which contains so much energy, character and warmth cannot help but make you smile through the occasional tear or two.


Perfect – Rachel Joyce

Reading Bex’s review of ‘Harold Fry’ reminded me that I need to review Rachel Joyce’s latest book, Perfect, (among other things).  I have been put to shame by Bex, with her 12 posts of Christmas, as we were both working so hard in the last week or so. New Year’s Resolution then – I must post my reviews more regularly…..

9780857520661 After giving us the story of Harold and Maureen, towards the end of their lives, Rachel Joyce now tells the tale of two boys, growing up in the 70’s.  We see their childhood mostly from the point of view of Byron Hemmings – described as an imaginative boy, I’d call him anxious – so we get a rather one-sided view of his rather more confident friend, James, his little sister, his rather fey mother Diana and absent (yet always terrifying) father. Byron seems so sweet – naive and protective of his mother in particular – that I spent a lot of the book worrying about his future…

There is also a modern day thread to the book – told from the point of view of a man called Jim, an ex-resident of a recently closed-down psychiatric facility.  We get a good idea of what he has to live through every day – rituals, fears and anxieties – as we follow him in his home and job.  As a character I would say he bears a strong resemblance to Harold Fry – especially when he is adrift without Maureen.

The action in the story mainly follows Diana’s friendship with a young woman from a nearby council estate.  Class seems to be a theme in the story – Diana is obviously from a working class, theatrical background and the father is best described as ‘nouveau riche’ – and although you want to warm to Beverley (the new friend), since she seems to understand Diana much better than the other, more middle-class, mothers, you soon realise that the friendship is not a healthy one.

Rachel Joyce has once again taken serious themes – mental health, snobbery and loneliness, with hints of spousal abuse, alcoholism, blackmail and infidelity – and turned them into a story which demands that you enter into the feelings of the characters. It isn’t necessarily always a comfortable read but, once again, I feel there is a very positive ambience to the ending.


12 Books of Christmas – #9 The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Image“A book about a fairly average recently retired man who instead of posting a letter to his dying friend, ends up walking to the other end of the country to see her…it’s really good, I promise…” I said or something fairly close to that when I first tried to recommend this book to somebody and suddenly realised just how dull I made it sound.  I find Harold Fry such a difficult book to describe because even the blurb doesn’t do justice to it’s brilliance and I can honestly say I’ve never read a book quite like it.

At the beginning of the journey, Harold’s focus is solely on Queenie, his friend on her deathbed but the further he gets, the more you realise that the journey is as much about Harold, his wife Maureen and all of the disciple-like followers and regular people who join in as news quickly spreads about Harold’s trip.  For Harold and Maureen, the time apart allows them to each look back over their lives and try to make sense of both the good and bad times, their regrets and failed wishes.  Through flashbacks, it seems that Harold and Maureen are in a sort of rut and both are feeling jaded by life but examining their memories, they become aware that there is always hope, something which Harold tries to impart to his followers and us as readers generally.

There are some genuinely funny bits but it isn’t a comic novel, it’s a feel good, life affirming novel that deserves all the praise it gets.  I can honestly say that it’s a rare book as I have never heard of anybody who has read this novel and not raved about how good it is – I certainly count myself amongst them.