'The Melody' will draw you in, then take you somewhere unexpected
On the morning I read Jim Crace's superb new novel The Melody, I was in our living room when I heard them: bells. Chiming over and over again, from I knew not where. It felt as if the book itself had created an atmosphere around me, as if I'd entered its world involuntarily — and I wasn't surprised.
That's how immersive Crace's latest trickster tale — about an aging (Italian? Maltese? Sardinian?) singer known as "Mister Al" — truly is. Turns out the lovely bells were an alarm on a family member's phone that hadn't been turned off, but the string of Persian bells that chime in Mister Al's house might sound just like the digital ones.
The Melody starts out gently, melancholically: Mister Al, whose full name is Alfred Busi, is a recent widower living in the ramshackle seaside pile of his family home, slightly embarrassed by the arousal he experiences when his late wife's sister Katerine, known as "Terina," comforts him. Terina, une femme d'un certain age who is elegant, beautiful and sophisticated, inspires Mister Al, and so it is she whom he calls after a strange midnight attack. Perhaps we are going to read a bittersweet fable of late-life love?
Nope, sorry, not at all. Crace as author owns wiles far ahead of any reader's. Turns out his story hinges on the source of the attack, a creature that smells of potato peelings, might be part Neanderthal, and lives on the city's edges, both geographic and chronologic. As Busi's life begins to unravel — Terina's son has brokered a deal to sell the family villa to developers — he becomes more and more obsessed with "the rough and common people" who live in the woody bosk behind his home. (Crace is given to different kinds of wordplay, including names, like "J.F. Pencillon" for the nephew, so close to the penicillin Busi must receive via agonizing stomach injection for his wounds from the creature).
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The novel's second half occurs eight years later. The much-changed city seems more modern, but there is still a "Poverty Park" at its edges, and when Busi ventures there to scatter Alicia's ashes, he and we learn that poverty can act as a sort of de-evolution, turning homo sapiens into a beast of opportunity. Crace has spoken of and written about the catalyst behind this story, of a time he spent in Chennai, India, and looked out from his hotel window to see strange forms ravaging a dumpster: "The waste bins were being raided and knocked over by mammals. And those mammals were cats and dogs and humans."
The mystery of the actual melody lies in how extreme deprivation and desperation cling to even the most gentrified landscape. The narrator says, when the city's Poverty Park is cleaned up, "Our town will never be the same again, thought it is hard for anyone to say if this is for the better or the worse. Each gain is paid for with a loss." For Busi as a musician, his home environs have always held music: "[He] would still have lyrics to perform, without an audience, would still have private melodies," and our unseen narrator details the ocean breeze "setting off a timpani of pebbles," the forest leaves "rustling, a susurrating chorus," showing us how lyrical the natural world can be.
The city's bourgeois residents, however, cannot hear the song of the impoverished wild folk in their midst. They fear contact with these "others" who smell of potato peel and earth, preferring to relegate them to the borders of "Poverty Park." But when Busi and his small posse decide to pass those borders, they enter into a kind of pact with the "others," lacing Alicia's string of Persian bells into a tree as a welcome (or warning? Let the reader decide). Crace's wise use of a narrator — and a reliable one, at that — reminds us of the distance between author and characters, characters whose limited perspectives leave underserved people in need.
But wait. Those pretty tinkling bells aren't the only ones in the story. Alicia once also bought a larger, heavier bell, one that isn't the authentic relic its seller claimed it to be, but one whose inscribed message holds significant weight: "Whoever strikes me hears my voice." We might be rich or poor, young or old, fast or slow — but we each have a voice. To what end do we use it? The possibilities are haunting, and so is Crace's message, around which he has invented an entire world: We are only as meaningful as the help we give to others.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.