The Melody by Jim Crace is a recommended allegorical tale about ageing, urban renewal, family conflict, and grief.
Alfred Busi is a famous singer in his sixties living in his family's villa overlooking the sea in unnamed town. He still occasionally performs, but mostly for small crowds. He is still mourning the recent death of his wife. His town is going to honor him the next evening, when he is attacked by an intruder. He thinks it was a wild feral child while his sister-in-law, who comes over to bandage him up, thinks it was a cat. This attack and a news account of the attack, along with pictures of Busi in bandages, sets off a chain of events, including a drive to rid the town of the poor after Busi was subsequently mugged. Busi also has to handle his nephew who wants him to sell his villa so seaside condos can be built on the land.
First, the prose is distinct and startling at times, with unique descriptions. His first attacker is described as something fierce and dangerous, wild and innocent, with smooth skinned that smells like potato peel. It creates a visceral image that sticks in your mind. The setting the rich against the poor was certainly a morality tale for our time. The narrator is removed from the story, simply telling the story, until we learn his identity later in the book. Crace is, as he describes himself, a fabulist.
But, even with parts that were amazing, I'm going to admit that this was a tough story for me to get through. There were parts that were intriguing and brilliant, but other sections simply didn't hold my attention. I appreciated the reflections on grief and the loss of his wife. I wanted to love The Melody, but it ended up just being an average novel with bits of brilliance.
Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday
Jim Crace is an award-winning author with an established readership, but he is new to me. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Those that love literary fiction should take note.
Alfred Busi is a singer, and he was famous during his prime, but now he’s old, living alone in his villa with just his piano to keep him company. At the story’s outset he hears a noise below late at night and goes down to run the animals or the whoever out of his garbage bins, but instead he is attacked. Something or someone flies out and bites him a good one; he thinks it was a boy, a half-feral child:
“Busi could not say what it was, something fierce and dangerous, for sure…before the creature’s teeth sank into right side of his hand, and, flesh on flesh, the grip of something wet and warm began its pressure on his throat, Busi knew enough to be quite sure that this creature was a child. A snarling, vicious one, which wanted only to disable him and then escape.”
The problem—beyond the injury itself—is that Busi is elderly, forgetful, and occasionally confused. His wife is dead, and he’s grieving hard. The only people remaining in his life are his sister-in-law and her son, his nephew, and they aren’t sure he isn’t delusional. Medical staff question his reliability as well; soon, a truly nasty journalist writes a smear piece making fun of him, and it comes out just as he is scheduled to perform for the last time at a concert where he’s to receive a prestigious award. It’s all downhill from there.
Concurrently there’s discussion among the locals about the homeless people living in the Mendicant Gardens—a place entirely devoid of foliage, where makeshift shacks are erected from cardboard, scrap lumber and whatever else is on hand—as well as the fate of the bosc. I find myself searching Google here because I am confused. I have never heard of a bosc, which turns out to be a wooded area of sorts, and my disorientation is compounded by not knowing where in the world this whole thing is unfolding. If our protagonist lives in a villa, and if we’re not in Mexico, then are we in Southern Europe somewhere? I am following language cues; the names of things and places sound like they could be Italian, or maybe French. Or in Spain. The heck? I go to the author bio, but that’s no help, since Crace lives in the U.S. I try to brush this off and live with the ambiguity, but I continue wishing that I could orient myself. It’s distracting. There’s a social justice angle here involving society’s obligation to its poorest members, but I am busy enough trying to establish setting that the effect is diluted.
Nevertheless, the prose here is sumptuous and inviting. Adding to the appeal is the clever second person narrative; we don’t know who is talking to us about Mr. Busi, and we don’t know whether the narrator is speaking to a readership or to someone specific. For long stretches we are caught up in the plight of our protagonist and forget about the narrator, and then he pops back in later to remind us and pique our curiosity.
I am surprised to see this title receive such negative reviews on Goodreads. To be sure, GR reviewers are a tough lot, but there are some angry-sounding readers out there. What they seem to share in common is that they are Crace’s faithful fans, and if this title is a letdown for them, I can only imagine what his best work looks like; after a brief search I added one of his most successful titles to my to-read list, because I want to see what this author could do in his prime.
And there it is. Many people won’t want to read this, because we don’t like thinking about old age and death. Busi’s whole story is about the slow spiral that occurs for most people that live long enough to be truly old. It’s depressing. Those of us that are of retirement age don’t want to think about it because it’s too near; those that are far from it are likely to wrinkle their noses and move on to merrier things. It’s a hard sell, reading about aging, physical decay, and dementia. And there are specific passages that talk about Busi’s injuries and physical maladies that caused me to close the book and read something else when I was eating. It’s not a good mealtime companion.
Crace is known as a word smith, and rightly so. If you seek a page-turner, this is not your book, but for those that admire well-turned phrases and descriptions as art, this book is recommended.
Alfred Busi is better known in his town as Mister Al, the singer/pianist. But his venues aren’t as large as they once were and he’s in mourning for his much beloved wife. He’s not keeping up his home very well and it’s getting a bit worn down. He’s often awakened in the night by animals raiding the garbage cans in his courtyard. One night upon hearing the noises in the courtyard, he ventures down to set things right. He’s suddenly attacked – scratched and bitten – and he’s sure it wasn’t an animal but had the sense that it was a naked wild boy. The report of the attack sets off a series of rumors of what’s living in the nearby woods and ignites fear and discord throughout the town.
This is a beautifully written tale of love and age and grief and reputation. It’s slow moving but very compelling and unusual and poetic in nature. It’s almost like a fairy tale or a dream that just carried me along in its flow. For all its poetry, it’s also political and makes a strong statement against the prejudices that many of those who are more fortunate have against the homeless and poor. The author is a past winner of the Man Booker Prize and I had read that he had retired from writing but then came out with this book. I’m glad he did and am looking forward to reading more of his work. This one will long remain in my memory due to its distinctiveness.
This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.