Somewhere in Europe, on a dark night, in a decaying seaside villa, a lonely old widower confronts an intruder in his kitchen. Alfred Busi has long been accustomed to the nightly din created by wild dogs, cats, monkeys, deer, pigs and rats that ferret for food through his and his neighbours’ metal bins, sometimes in competition with the poor and homeless. It’s unclear what or who has broken into his house. What is clear is that it has rent the membrane between civilisation and savagedom. Is it a wild animal, a feral child, or even one of the primitive hominids, the “neanderthals” rumoured to live in the bosk nearby? Not all the wounds that Busi suffers in the encounter can be bandaged with cotton. His life begins to change. Or, to look at it another way, change begins to catch up with his life.
Busi – “Mister Al” to his fans – is a singer. Once he toured the world. Now, his voice has “lost some of its caverns and peaks”, even if his craft helps him compensate. His fans remain loyal, while ageing alongside him, even if these days they are mostly fellow citizens of the town in which he has lived his whole life.
The morning after the incident is the unveiling of a bust in his honour on the town’s Avenue of Fame. Present at the ceremony are his late wife Alicia’s enigmatically alluring sister, Terina; her scheming and oleaginous son Joseph, a property developer; and the clownish reporter for the Indices, the pseudonymous Soubriquet, whose moral compass generally points south. Together with Busi’s impulsive young neighbour Lex, and the gentle, ever-present spirit of Alicia, they will, each in their way, see Busi through one of the most eventful weeks of his life – and beyond.
This is English writer Jim Crace’s 12th book. He has previously won two Whitbread awards and either won or been short-listed for other prestigious literary prizes, including the Booker. Crace is a sharp and witty observer of life: “… love, like talent and like beauty, is paid in one lump sum and can be spent.” He writes with elegant precision: a view of headlands and distant bays reveals “sand-beds, kelp swards, boulder chokes”. He excels at describing smells; Crace has as many words for stench as the Inuits do for snow. Elegant is not the same as delicate: this is a novel with claws.
The Melody, in some ways a contemporary take on the romantic novel, has an air of timelessness, though there are definite markers of 20th-century modernity. But now there are cars, Busi remembers jolting along in a horse-drawn cart in his youth. Soubriquet still uses a typewriter. The language Crace employs is often quaint, as though translated from some other tongue using a 50-year-old dictionary. Yet this little world’s most burning issues are precisely those the world at large faces today. Developers, arguing the case of progress, view untamed wilderness as property and opportunity. From the perspective of the fearful burghers, the poor, who range in circumstance and desperation from the threadbare and sullen “shods” to the filthy, dead-eyed and brutish inhabitants of the town’s Mendicant Gardens, are the barbarians at the gates; they threaten to swamp the town with a tidal wave of filth, immorality and crime. (The town could well be Europe, the poor, refugees; The Melody is a metaphorically rich tale.)
“We should be shaped by wealth and not by poverty,” Joseph tells Soubriquet. The “out-of-elbows and the down-at-heels” are bad for business and especially tourism. If the town didn’t take sterner measures, he argued, it would be “overrun by paupers”, adding, “A modern town cannot support neanderthals.” The poor, in the view of Joseph (a view happily expanded on and propagated by Soubriquet), are virtually subhuman, savages or “humanzees” like the legendary hominids of the untamed bosk by Busi’s villa. And like the hominids, like the animals happy to feast on rotting scraps in Poverty Park (a part of the forest outside the town), the poor needed to be dealt with, and with similar force if necessary, in order for the town to move into its glorious and prosperous future. If not, “our town would be controlled not by the police but by a tribe of snarling city savages”. Joseph owns a gun, and he means business in all senses of the word.
He thinks his uncle ought to have a gun, too, and not just his useless “clouting stick”. Busi has his albeit decaying home to protect, but his sensibilities are most unlike those of his nephew. He entertains fantastical if momentary dreams of becoming a kind of gentleman-saviour, or at least advocate for the indigent. But this is before reality, which has many feet, some of them very well shod indeed, kicks him in the face.
Joseph and Soubriquet are cartoonish characters, driven by their baser instincts. Soubriquet doesn’t even like his own cat, and it’s mutual. Their differences are mostly those of class. (With even the classes of the poor delineated with great clarity, this is most definitely an English novel.) Whether they sincerely share the fear they messily conspire to whip up is a moot point. It certainly serves them both well: if the town can be persuaded to drive out the poor, Joseph can make more money; if fear grips the town and dramatic measures are taken, Soubriquet has plenty to write about.
One of our biggest fears, The Melody suggests, is that of the unknown, and one of the biggest unknowns is where exactly lies the line between our animal and human natures. People fear poverty for many reasons, including how well it illustrates how thin, in desperate circumstances, that line might be. But if fear is one theme of The Melody, it is part of a rich composition. The Melody is also a love ballad, and delves into the mysteries of friendship, attraction and our relationship to the ineffable. As Busi says, reflecting on his inability to find the lyrics for his final composition: “Music’s water; words are stone.” CG
Picador, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Jim Crace, The Melody". Subscribe here.