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Jim Crace’s brilliant The Melody explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, writes Paige Nick

Published in the Sunday Times

The Melody *****
Jim Crace, Picador, R285

After his Booker-nominated Harvest (2013), Jim Crace was never going to write another novel – until three things happened. The first was at a literary festival in India, in a luxury hotel where high walls and security kept the world out, except at night when animals and humans fed loudly from the bins next door.

The second was a year later, in Malta, when Crace stayed on a promenade built for sun seekers in the 1800s. But now the buildings cast it into shade, except where an early Victorian house, badly in need of repair, had survived. Just one storey high, the sun got through and locals gathered in that little moving square of sunshine. This conflict between the built and natural world lives in all Crace’s work.

So Crace collapsed India into Malta and Malta into the Mediterranean as The Melody started to form in his head.

The third thing happened years ago while writing a short story for The Devil’s Larder (2001). In story No 60, a character named Tambar appears in just one sentence. Crace liked that the musician’s name sounded like “tambourine”, but later came to dislike it. So before the American edition came out he renamed him Alfred Busi.

And so Busi is The Melody’s lead; a famous singer coming to terms with retirement and his wife’s death. One night a lonely Busi is attacked by what could either be a wild animal or a feral child stealing food from his pantry. The attack spins the town folk into panic and Busi’s nephew, a developer, uses the crisis to further his own agenda as they wage war on whatever or whoever is living in the forest. The novel explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, as well as the refugee crisis and xenophobia.

Crace is the master of allegorical novels, set in no particular time or place. What The Melody lacks in fast-paced plot it makes up for with Crace’s superb lyrical style. And though the reader may not be able to pinpoint when this brilliant book is set, that doesn’t make it less of a novel for our times. @paigen

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