Rachel Joyce, an author in the vein of Joanna Cannon and Sarah Winman, has a knack of succinctly capturing the minutiae of everyday behaviours with piercing insight. In just a few words she paints an image of an attitude, action or expression that conveys more than mere description. Her characters are not just brought to life on the page, they become close acquaintances, the reader investing in their outcomes, feeling their joys and pain.
This latest work opens in January 1988, in a town that is changing under Thatcher’s Britain. The unnamed music shop is a relic of the old. It is located in a rundown side street – a row of tatty shops and their upstairs flats along one side; houses, many divided and sublet, on the other. The shop owners live above their businesses. They are an integral part of a small community.
The music shop is run by Frank and his assistant, the accident prone Kit. They sell vinyl records, eschewing cassettes and the newly popular CDs. Frank’s modus operandi is to tell his customers what music they need to listen to, something he somehow feels from their presence. He enjoys helping others but keeps himself emotionally distant, afraid of being hurt again.
Frank’s sheltered little world is threatened by encroaching gentrification, and by the arrival of a mysterious woman who faints outside his shop window one afternoon. When Ilse Brauchmann returns to thank Frank for his help he realises he may be smitten. It is almost a relief when he discovers she is unavailable as she is already engaged.
The story is interspersed with flashbacks to Frank’s childhood. He was raised by his single mother, a wealthy and Bohemian woman who insisted that her son call her Peg, refusing to act as expected or conform to anything ordinary. Peg entertained a string of boyfriends but her true love was music. She shared her knowledge and passion with her son, but offered him little else.
Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music with lessons to be given once a week. Using the stories his mother told he opens up to this enigmatic stranger. Alongside their burgeoning friendship, Frank and the other residents of Unity Street are being wooed by property developers. When they refuse the financial incentives, threats are made.
The character development is astute and often humorous but the plot arc lacked sufficient depth to keep me fully engaged. Although billed as a love story this aspect felt contrived in places. The strength of the writing is in the quiet observations of people, and in the music – its emotional impact and the anecdotes shared. Those with Spotify can listen to The Music Shop playlist, an eclectic mix with links explained throughout the tale.
Any Cop?: Despite my reservations there is enough pleasure to be derived to make this a book worth reading. It is a gentle, hopeful story. The resurgence in popularity of vinyl and the decline of CDs provides a fitting coda.