Book Review: 'The Music Shop' is a memorable read with a great playlist

The protagonist in this novel about an '80s record store prescribes music as medicine

12 September 2017 - 10:26 By Michelle Magwood
'The Music Shop' tells the story of a record store in the 1980s in an unnamed British city.
'The Music Shop' tells the story of a record store in the 1980s in an unnamed British city.
Image: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some books come with benefits beyond that of ideas or an engrossing story. They introduce one to unknown places, and they often introduce the reader to music they don't know.

There were the Bach partitas of Ian McEwan's The Children Act, for instance, delirious Iggy Pop and post-punk in Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Hari Kunzru's new novel White Tears centres on early American blues. Kunzru himself has compiled a playlist of such obscure songs as Mississippi Jail House Groan by Rube Lacy on the Knopf Publishers website.

The Music Shop also has a brilliant playlist, telling as it does the story of a record store in the 1980s in an unnamed British city.

The young owner, Frank, has an uncanny ability to recommend music his customers need. He senses their sorrows or listens to their problems and then prescribes the aural remedy: Shalamar for a couple wanting to rejuvenate their marriage; Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings for a troubled soul; Aretha Franklin's Oh No, Not My Baby for a cheated-on groom.

The store is one of several on a dilapidated road called Unity Street and the other shop owners are regulars at Frank's.

Maud the tattooist, the defrocked priest Father Anthony who sells religious paraphernalia, two inseparable brothers who are undertakers and a lonely widowed baker.

They are clinging to each other in the face of change. Frank is refusing to stock CDs and the record companies are threatening to cut him off. Some smarmy developers are trying to buy the residents out to develop the street into a yuppie enclave, offering prices they can hardly refuse.

Into their small community arrives a German woman, Ilse Brauchmann, who steals Frank's awkward heart.

Rachel Joyce wrote the breakout bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and its companion novel The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, perfecting her themes of the dignity of ordinary people, of regret and missed chances and the painful secrets of the heart.

In The Music Shop she continues these, stirring in the redemptive power of love and community. It's a truly warm story, but what elevates it to a memorable read is her knowledge of music.

We read of Vivaldi, known as the Red Priest because of his fiery hair, who was the equivalent of a rock star but who died penniless and whose funeral was unattended. We learn that Beethoven's The Moonlight Sonata is not about moonlight at all, but about a disastrous love affair. She points out the foghorn in Van Morrison's Into The Mystic, the trout in Schubert's quintet and writes vividly about the jazz greats.

''Jazz was about the spaces between notes," she writes. "It was about what happened when you listened to the thing inside you. The gaps and the cracks. Because that was where life really happened; when you were brave enough to free-fall."

Can Ilse and Frank allow themselves to free-fall? The answer will surprise you.

The Music Shop is available from Exclusive Books for R302; find the playlist for the book at

This article was originally published in The Times.