Tuesday 20 March 2018

Unlikely tale of a life more ordinary misses a beat

Fiction: The Music Shop, Rachel Joyce, Doubleday, ­paperback, 324 pages, €15.99

Classic rom-com: Rachel Joyce burst on to the literary scene in 2012
Classic rom-com: Rachel Joyce burst on to the literary scene in 2012
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

James Walton

Ever since she hit the literary big time with her first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in 2012, Rachel Joyce has been the kind of writer routinely described as "life-affirming". The reasons for this aren't hard to find. On the whole, her books feature fundamentally decent people trying to do the right thing; and whatever the world throws at them, they generally discover that - as she puts it in her new novel, The Music Shop - "the human adventure is worth it, after all". She also writes with unquestionable charm and with her considerable heart never far from her sleeve.

But all of this perhaps makes it easy to forget what a peculiar writer Joyce is. On the one hand, her work makes a strong and defiantly unfashionable case for living a normal, unspectacular life as best you can. On the other, her plots tend to be pitched somewhere between the rather implausible and the wildly fantastical.

In her strongest books - Harold Fry, for instance, or the short story collection A Snow Garden - the combination of realism and fairytale achieves exactly what it's meant to, by reminding us of how miraculous the ordinary can be. Elsewhere, though, most notably in 2013's Perfect, the two elements end up working against each other, with the plotting so baroque and dominant that it feels not so much an illustration of her wider themes, as a distraction from them.

And this, I'm afraid, is what ultimately happens in The Music Shop, where the trouble is compounded by the fact that the plotting in question draws heavily on countless Hollywood movies, so pulling off the unusual double of being improbable and predictable at the same time.

The shop of the title is one of five failing businesses in a crumbling cul-de-sac of an unglamorous provincial town. On the plus side, the owner is 40-year-old Frank, "a gentle bear of a man" who shares Joyce's love of "daily ordinariness" and has the gift of knowing what piece of music his customers need to hear to be instantly healed of their problems. To Joyce's obvious approval too, even though it's 1988, he still sells only vinyl, refusing to stock CDs on the grounds that listening to music isn't supposed to be effortless.

In the first of the two archetypal Hollywood stories that drive the action, the cul-de-sac - not insignificantly named Unity Street - comes under threat from a sinister property developer. In the second, more important one, the sudden appearance of a beautiful and mysterious German woman called Ilse (her eyes, as luck would have it, "black as vinyl") plunges Frank deep into a classic rom-com.

Sure enough, both he and Ilse have dark secrets in their past that make them nervous of love; they signal their growing fondness by laughing together at things that aren't very funny ("He'd forgotten what it was like, just to laugh and laugh"); above all, Frank's reluctance to be hurt again ensures that the relationship's on-off quotient is kept impressively, if a little repetitiously, high. So will they ever get together?

Joyce tries every trick in the playbook to keep us wondering. Yet the only real doubt about the outcome is how it'll be achieved - and by the end she's painted herself into such a corner that the answer turns out to be very improbable, as she shamelessly cranks the Hollywood up to 11.

Reading Joyce's novels has always required a certain suspension of disbelief - and any readers who can manage it here will, I suspect, be in for a great time. They may even be able to be unequivocally moved by that big finish without a more sceptical inner voice also whispering: "But hold on a minute..."

Those who can't, meanwhile, will still be left with plenty to enjoy. Joyce's charm and good-heartedness remain undiminished, as does her ability to create a highly appealing, semi-magical world that's sort of like ours and sort of not - and to make us root for her characters all the way. Nonetheless, I suspect I won't be the only person who finishes The Music Shop wishing it could have fulfilled our hopes for Frank and Ilse without scaling quite such heights of corniness.

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