“A book you don’t quite get” – The Melody by Jim Crace

Alfred Busi (pronounced like Gary Busey) is a famous singer in the twilight of his years, relatively recently widowed, living alone in the house in which he was raised,  even as the house gradually goes to wrack and ruin around him. Jim Crace’s twelfth book opens “in the shallows of the night”, Busi – like many older people – given to the odd bout of night-time insomnia, woken by animals foraging in his bins (again, a relatively regular occurrence we are told). But this night is slightly different because, emerging from his back door with the intention of driving the beasts away, Busi is attacked – and he suspects the creature that attacks him is human, a small, feral boy.

Now, wheresoever you think the book should go from this point, I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t quite go where you would expect and The Melody is not quite the book this opening chapter sets you up for. The photograph of Busi “in his suit and bandages…

“would find its way into the more jocular pages of the New York Times, the Bavarian, the London Illustrated News, L’Express, the Digest of Valetta… and after that? Well, everywhere. Who hasn’t seen the photograph?”

The question of what or who attacked Busi sparks an interest in the missing link, some missed form of life loitering in the more abstract precincts of the locality (which is itself never identified – is this some polite seaside town, in England or abroad? your guess is as good as mine). This in turn gives rise to a story (penned by a journalist known only as Soubriquet), in the local publication Indices (pronounced to rhyme with endive) that seems to stoke that prevalent mood we see at play in the larger world currently, with the rich suspecting the poor and blaming the poor and fearing the poor.

“Something should be done to stop the rot… otherwise our town would be controlled not by the police but by a tribe of snarling city savages, of ‘garmented bipeds’, for whom our modern streets and alleyways would become what ravines and tracks were to the natural primitives of ancient times…”

Busi’s nephew, a blustery local business man, is quoted spouting the usual right wing bullshit (“We should be shaped by wealth and privilege”) and Busi feels implicated in views that are not necessarily his own.

But even this suggests a path that the novel does not strictly adhere to. In some ways, The Melody is a Crace novel like All That Follows, in that it has a wandering, fusty quality, as if a dusty academic emerged from a library in order to share a story that couldn’t be told without a hundred scene-setting digressions; in other ways, it feels sharp, engaged, contemporary. After his attack, Busi calls his late wife’s sister, Katerina, “or Terina, as she was known within the family” and she comes over in the night to dress his wounds. Busi idly dallies with the thought of reviving a brief passion they shared; yet later, when we inhabit Terina’s head, we see that she doesn’t really like him – although over the course of the book she seems to develop greater fondness for him. We also meet Lexxx, a young neighbour, who gradually befriends Busi too. But again we get ahead of ourselves. Relatively early in the book, Busi learns (from Lexxx) that the house next to his is set to be demolished – and then he learns that there are plans to unseat him from his own property (his nefarious nephew has a hand in the plans) and this, in turn, leads to bad feeling between Busi and Terina, Joseph’s mother.

But there is another element to The Melody that wrongfoots you as you go. This is a tale that is being told, by someone – we know not who until very late in the day. And so there are times when our narrator intrudes with the occasional I was there. Who is that, you ask yourself. Before forgetting for a while and reading on, inhabiting other characters (Soubriquet, Terina). Periodically we are reminded that this is a story that has been shared elsewhere, in media, on the world’s stage. When Busi is attacked for a second time, when he misses a performance, when he (and others) spy the child again – all of these acts seem to have a greater resonance than we can perhaps even glimpse. This, taken alongside a curious dream sequence in which Busi may or may not be singing on a stage as various catastrophes unravel, and the strange acknowledgements that closes out the book (running, unfinished, off the bottom of the page), leaves you with a feeling that The Melody is a book you don’t quite get.

Jim Crace is a mischievous writer, no doubt, and you can tell that many of his books look to impishly poke and prod and draw blood (Quarantine, for instance, his story of Christ’s weeks in the wilderness) – but there are moments in The Melody when the novel feels like a private joke, which is not much fun. You can’t help but wonder if greater clarity is needed, or perhaps a more overt narrative that centres on those things that are obviously of interest to him (the relationship between rich and poor, say) rather than this odd, discursive book that tries to be a lot of different things without quite successfully doing anything well.

Any Cop?: Not our favourite Crace novel, it has to be said. The failing may well be ours (we’ll admit there are choices here we didn’t get), but The Melody is not an earworm. Rather it is a book that you can’t help but wonder: who is this for?


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