The Melody by Jim Crace review – the book blazes with anger
Impossible not to recall the sweeps undertaken in our own, all too real world, against migrants and the ostensibly undeserving poor, in the name of order
Jim Crace: ‘The book is a libation offered to the natural world in token of repentance and shame’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Early in The Melody, Jim Crace’s hypnotic and powerful 12th book, the protagonist Alfred Busi – “Mister Al”, well known in his town for his music and songs – dines al fresco in a serene corner of the local botanic gardens. Busi is ageing, and lonely, enduring “the loveless, fallow times that came with widowhood and age”: but he still lives in the seaside villa he shared with his beloved wife Alicia. And he remains hale and hearty: or had been, at least, until the previous night, when an unknown assailant – a beast, perhaps, or a starving child – attacked him in his house, ripping ferociously into his skin, his flesh, his sense of security. Worst of all, as the creature fled, it tripped the set of Persian bells hanging from the larder door. Until this moment, the sound of these bells signified to Busi peace, love, domestic harmony – but now their melody has been distorted, for ever.
Now Busi is lunching, and remembering Alicia, who also favoured this spot: “Eating in a garden in the open air – their table nearly always gleaned by the finches and the sparrows, even gulls and butterflies – never failed to brighten her. In fact they courted there, had first professed – confessed – their loves.”
The Melody is a tale of breaking and entering, effected in any number of ways: flesh is clawed open, and shoes wrenched from prostrate feet; self-respect is split asunder and pulverised by assailants unknown. Busi’s keys are stolen, and intruders enter his home; he glances into the window of a property agent to discover that his house is to be demolished at the instigation of his vile nephew, to make way for new apartments. But renewed love and friendship also sweep into Busi’s life, and his shattering loneliness is broken by the bustling kindness of strangers: as the finches glean crumbs from his table, so the book implies that we could all, in fact, benefit from a degree of breaking and entering in our lives.
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All this is framed within a distinctively Crace universe. The Melody reads as a classic realist novel, with its omniscient narrator – indiscreet, engaging, up on local gossip – describing Busi’s handsome town, its natural hinterland, its skyline of pinnacles and domes. But real and fantastical meet here and mingle seamlessly: Busi and his friends sip unknown drinks, unknown trees grow in the forests, and the town itself is found on no map. As Crace has noted, “minting a new world […] is a liberation I nearly always search for in my novels for the licence and the freedom it allows. Anything can happen in the realms of make-believe.” This genre-bending effect is at once enchanting and disconcerting – and it offers, in addition, a substantial rebuff to the idea, frequently remarked upon, that the novel in general and the English novel in particular, has less and less to offer the modern reader.
For this book urgently addresses contemporary concerns: the atomisation of our societies and our creeping isolation; the unceasing violation of our environment in the name of progress; and the extermination of other species, often before they can even be identified. Crace’s work belongs in part to the pastoral tradition in English writing: the hinterland of this nameless town, “a tangled, aromatic, salt-resistant maze of sea-thorn, carob and pine scrub” and the “blinding cinema of sea” fronting Busi’s house, are all described in loving and intensely vivid terms. But as the trees are felled, the scrub cleared, and a shadowy bestiary of wanderers – “ferals” and “neanderthals”, as they are casually labelled by the authorities – swept out of the town, so the book blazes with anger. Impossible not to recall the sweeps undertaken in our own, all too real world, against migrants and the ostensibly undeserving poor, in the name of order, civilisation, and decency.
From time to time, The Melody is suggestive of a fairy tale: Busi and his friends take to the forest in a way reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel, unsure whether they will ever find a way through the trees. But ultimately, this book is a libation, offered to the natural world in token of repentance and shame. For Busi does not seek a trail of crumbs: instead, he himself offers food to the forest and its homeless inhabitants, and in so doing, will perhaps find a way home. The Melody is a reminder that we neither own nor control the natural world – and a reminder too that this world will, in the end, have its way.