Published: 29th October 2020
Publisher: Harper Collins
This was one of those novels that came as a complete surprise. I had no idea what to expect as I’d never read Joe Heap’s work before, but what started out adagio builds to an absolute crescendo of emotion and I shed tears over Ella’s story. In the present, we meet Ella as an old lady shipwrecked on a yacht called Mnemosyne with a small baby. She’s struggling physically and seems forgetful, whether through injury or age we don’t know at first. Then we are taken back to different points in her life, significant moments with specific people. Whether with her for a short or long time, these are people she has lost and their presence had a massive impact on her life. Our first flashback takes us to meet Ella when she’s a little girl, living in a Glasgow tenement and spending time after school between her home and that of her friend Rene. Rene has a beautiful guitar, made for her by her father and Ella is quite jealous of it, wishing she had a father who could make such things. One evening, after school Ella wants to avoid going home because she’s been in trouble and keeps Rene out in the cold on a local playground. Rene has severe asthma. The next morning, when Ella wakes she senses something wrong and when she goes into the main room where her parents are up and making breakfast she sees Rene’s guitar and knows immediately. Her friend is gone.
This loss when she is so young, sets in motion events that will resonate throughout her life. First, it brings her into contact with Rene’s brother Robert who is a few years older. He brings her a parcel and she expects something terrible, some retribution or punishment for what she sees as her culpability in his sister’s death. What she opens is a block of ‘tablet’ a Scottish fudge-like sweet made by their mother with sugar and condensed milk. This gift cements their friendship, one which will last their entire lives. Secondly, after vowing never to look at Rene’s guitar and stuffing it under the bed, she decides to learn and her father takes her to a music shop for a beginner’s guitar book. Yet Ella is drawn to something different. She picks up a book of seven guitar exercises featuring songs that encompass stages of life, from the child to the crone. Called The Songs of the Dead, the shop owner is unsure whether it’s suitable for a child but Ella is sure. It is each of these exercises that separates the sections of the book. The structure is incredibly effective, it feels natural and organic rather than a forced device. Each section comprises the song, the memory and then Ella’s present situation with an unusual element – each person she has lost returns from the past with her.
It is never explained whether these visitations are supernatural in nature, whether Ella is hallucinating these characters or whether they’re a way of expressing how she remembers these people’s contribution to her life. Each one brings something to the present, whether it is the mechanical expertise needed to pump out the water in the hold, or a philosophical context to Ella’s experience. I loved how her friend Sandy describes life, death and time using the vinyl record as inspiration. He believes that we all still exist in time, even after death. In the same way other music tracks exist on a record, while we’re playing just one. The other tracks are always there, we have the memory of playing them, or anticipate hearing them again. They’re not wiped the moment a needle leaves the groove. There’s also the concept of two types of time; the time measured by clocks, work hours and timetables and a different kind of internal time. It’s something I discovered through meditation, but we all experience it, from time flying when we’re having fun or the perception that summer holidays used to last forever when we were children. Time seems to speed up as we get older, it barely seems like we’ve got one Christmas over before another is round the corner. Ella’s means of discovering slow time is destructive, but there are positive ways to slow down our internal time such as mindfulness. For Ella, time is coming full circle, and she’s slowly revisiting each life that touched hers either for a moment or for a lifetime. Each character is so fully realised. I loved Lester, a one time lover of Ella’s who helps her cope with the baby when he’s ill. Mai was so touching. She’s a young woman who meets Ella briefly in the labour ward as they both give birth to their children. In finding each other again Ella can fill in the gaps in Mai’s knowledge and reacquaint her with a son she never knew. In return Mai can help Ella face a loss she hadn’t fully apprehended. Each person’s story is so emotional and so real. I love that the author doesn’t judge any of the characters we meet, even where their influence on Ella isn’t always a positive one. We see them as fully rounded people and with such fondness, possibly because we’re seeing them through Ella’s lens and her love for them shines through.
The settings are also vivid. I throughly enjoyed Ella’s period in London, playing as a session guitarist and sharing a flat with Robert. Musicians come and go, and the flat is a whirlwind of jam sessions and parties. The 1960s were equally exciting as Ella becomes very sought after and chance finds her playing on tracks with some famous names. Of course the party can’t last and not all Ella’s experiences are happy ones, but she learns from each one. Her time as a nurse in a burns unit was also well drawn and as anyone who cares for others knows, there are patients who will remember what you did for them and others who get under your skin and stay with you forever. Like every life there are moments of bliss, excitement and love. Similarly there are moments of grief, dislocation and despair. All the time Robert is there, repeating like a musical refrain, rippling quietly under the surface of the music or occasionally becoming the main melody. We all have those people who come and go, who don’t always figure in our everyday lives, but who are constantly there. There were so many points where I thought of my own life. I thought of my friend Elliot who I was close with through school, and after university, and who I see intermittently but think of constantly. My friend Nigel who died only a couple of years ago, we were only friends for a few years but he taught me so much, made me laugh and simply let me sit in his house and relax when I was a full time carer and desperately needed an escape. I am one of those people who fall in love with people I meet regardless of age, gender or situation in life. So, when I’ve worked in care there have been patients who have stayed with me forever, especially a little 90 year old lady called Mary who could sit on her own hair. I would go in on my days off and wash and dry it for her and she often used to sneak up and put her little hand in mine and follow me about while I made beds and doled out biscuits. I’ve often wondered when my time comes who would come to meet me. Finally, a word on that gorgeous cover: where the plants grow from spring freshness to an autumnal hue towards the neck of the guitar signifying the seasons of life. For anyone who has lost someone this story is especially poignant, but somehow it manages to stop short of sentimentality. Instead it feels profound, honest and raw and left me with such a beautiful bittersweet afterglow.
About The Author
Joe Heap was born in 1986 and grew up in Bradford, the son of two teachers. His debut novel The Rules of Seeing won Best Debut at the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Reader Awards. Joe lives in London with his girlfriend, their two sons and a cat who wishes they would get out of the house more often. This book is inspired by his mum and dad’s story.
A Note From Joe
At a summer season in Ramsgate, 1959, two ice skaters held a party. My grandfather, a Glaswegian saxophonist who would rather have gone to the pub, was convinced by a comedian on the same bill to come along. My grandmother, another one of the ice skaters, sat down next to him and spilt her drink in his lap. Though she has since denied it, her first words of note to him were ‘Oh no, not another Scot.’
Nobody could have guessed how much would spin off that moment, myself and this book included.