A note from Joe:
“I owe this book to my grandparents, John and Jean Sands, for sharing the stories that inspired it. In many ways their story is more remarkable than the one I have written.
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. Here are a few pictures of them.”
About the Book
This is the story of Ella. And Robert. And of all the things they should have said, but never did.
‘What have you been up to?’
I shrug, ‘Just existing, I guess.’
‘Looks like more than just existing.’
Robert gestures at the baby, the lifeboat, the ocean.
‘All right, not existing. Surviving.’
He laughs, not unkindly. ‘Sounds grim.’
‘It wasn’t so bad, really. But I wish you’d been there.’
Through seven key moments and seven key people their journey intertwines. From the streets of Glasgow during WW2 to the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll of London in the 60s and beyond, this is a story of love and near misses. Of those who come in to our lives and leave it too soon. And of those who stay with you forever…
Format: Hardcover (384 pages) Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: 29th October 2020 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Romance
Find When the Music Stops on Goodreads
The book’s structure, revisiting seven key moments and people in Ella’s life, was, according to the author, inspired by the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. However, as Joe Heap also writes, “This is a book about music, inspired by music” so cleverly incorporated into the story are the seven modes that have been part of musical notation since ancient times.
In When the Music Stops, each of these modes is represented by a song in a music book Ella acquires when she first takes up the guitar. Although other elements of her memory have faded by the time we first meet her as an old woman – alone, in rather strange circumstances – the tunes are still at her fingertips, evoking memories of significant stages in her life – and the people who shared them with her. As she muses, “There are seven songs. I have to play all of them, though I don’t know what will come at the end. I just have to play them.”
The ability of music to evoke memories is just one of the fascinating concepts explored in the book, along with the nature of memory itself and how we experience the passing of time. I’ll leave others to explain Einstein’s theories on the latter but I liked the metaphor Robert, Ella’s friend since childhood, employs. He compares time to a long-playing record. While you’re listening to the second verse of a song, he explains, the first verse is still there but you’re just not listening to it anymore.
As the reader learns, Ella’s life has been punctuated by moments of loss, often signalled by that thing we’ve probably all come to dread – the unexpected early morning or late night telephone call. Robert’s earlier metaphor is applicable here too. As he confides to Ella about a person they both knew, “I don’t think she’s really gone… I just think we can’t see her anymore.”
Another key theme of the book is that of the missed opportunities in life, especially between people like Ella and Robert. ‘The Road Not Taken’ of Robert Frost’s poem, as it were. Their encounters over the years are populated by falsely reassuring thoughts such as “There will be other chances” and fateful hesitations, “The door of possibility stays open, waiting for her to walk through, but she stays put”.
I admired the way the author recreated the atmosphere of each stage on the journey through Ella’s life, referencing the clothing, the television programmes or even the food of the time: the school playground gift of tablet (a sweet similar to fudge for you non-Scots out there) or a corned beef and pickle sandwich prepared for a picnic.
The standout section for me, entitled ‘The Rebel’, was Ella’s experiences as a session musician in 1960s London, rubbing shoulders with many famous, or soon to be famous, bands of the period. (In his acknowledgements, Joe mentions Carol Kaye, “a trailblazing female musician” who played guitar and bass on many hit records and was the inspiration for Ella.) I also found the section entitled ‘The Matron’ particularly moving.
At one point in the book, a character mentions ‘fantastical thinking’ and I think that’s a great description of the premise of this clever but very touching novel. At the online book launch, Joe Heap mentioned fantasy as making up some of his own early reading – books by authors such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – and it’s easy to see that influence in elements of the book. However, more than anything, When the Music Stops is an emotional story of love, loss and the power of the human spirit. I think it would make a great book club choice.
With its gorgeous cover, this is one of those occasions when I feel I’ve slightly missed out by opting for a digital version of a book. So I may just have to treat myself and help out an independent bookshop through Lockdown 2.0 in the process…
In three words: Imaginative, insightful, heartfelt
Try something similar: Fred’s Funeral by Sandy Day
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.
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