When the Music Stops by Joe Heap
This is a time slip novel which records the experience of a confused older woman in an extreme situation, as well as the story of Ella, a woman who experiences life and loss over much of her life. The book is held together by music, specifically seven pieces of music which express different elements of life. A moving and beautifully written story, the author has constructed a story which creates realistic characters and puts them in a narrative held together by music. Ella is specifically a guitarist, beginning with an inheritance that shapes her life while she meets people and has experiences that are possibly unusual for a woman at the time, in the nineteen fifties and sixties. As she grows up, moves to London, makes mistakes, meets people who become important to her, and has experiences which are recorded in quite a linear way, there are gaps and the indication that some people die. This is a semi fantastic novel which deals with music, life and death, and the attitudes of people who live on. The framing story of a woman in peril on a boat links into the main narrative in a unique way which is brilliantly handled. I found this a very readable novel, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.
The narration of the ongoing story which gives the framework for the life story is so constructed as to be imprecise and make the reader gradually realise. The older woman narrative is to be seen as battling with memory loss and confusion, but it also means that she is calm in what emerges as challenging circumstances. The potential loneliness of her situation is relieved in a most unusual way.
The story of Ella begins in a poorer area of Glasgow, where she is at primary school with her friend Rene. When tragedy strikes she takes up a guitar, and discovers an obscure music book of seven pieces which she learns. Despite being female, she gets the opportunity to play with a small amateur band for a short while until life moves on. She discovers some of the highs and lows of love and life while getting short assignments to play the guitar. She grows up quickly, learning about people, dealing with problems of the time, avoiding some of the difficulties of London life, falling into other traps. The guitar playing is technically described, yet the spirit of the music as it develops through Ella’s life is movingly described.
This is a unique novel about the love of music, the value of people who come and go in our lives, and the way that the memory of people survives. It asks questions about how people can be seen to live on, perhaps on the edge of conscious life for other people. It speaks of the decisions that people make, the tragedies that can happen as a result, the way that life flows on as a result of our choices. This novel in its two dimensions is a mature handling of the complexity of a life in the second half of the twentieth century. I found this a very readable book which drew me into Ella’s story. I recommend it for all those interested in the trials and tribulations of being a professional musician, but also the gift of music to enable a positive life.