'Sitcom' that is thin on ideas

The Melody is author Jim Crace's 12th novel.
The Melody is author Jim Crace's 12th novel.PHOTOS: PAN MACMILLAN, PICADOR
The Melody is author Jim Crace's 12th novel.
The Melody is author Jim Crace's 12th novel.PHOTOS: PAN MACMILLAN, PICADOR



By Jim Crace

Pan Macmillan/Paperback/272 pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya

3 stars

Retired celebrity singer Alfred Busi - Master Al as he is affectionately called - is a childless widower who lives alone and is attacked at home by an intruder one night.

He cannot brush off the suspicion that the intruder is some jungle boy from a tribe of uncivilised humans hiding out in the forest, according to town folklore.

A day after the attack, Master Al's hitherto smooth-sailing life turns turtle - he is made to look like a buffoon when an interview with a local reporter is grossly distorted; finds out his nephew is eyeing his home to redevelop the area; and is robbed when walking through a park peopled by the homeless.

Master Al was supposed to perform at a gala to mark his inception into the town's Avenue of Fame, but he is in no state to sing and missed a show for the first time.

However, it is not the mishaps that explain his sorry state, he reflects. The truth is that "the yolk had gone out of his egg" since his wife Alicia's death two years ago.

She has "carried off his songs. His appetite for performing had been cremated with her bones".

It sounds as if a sad song might be playing in the background, but Jim Crace keeps things light and even upbeat.

Sure, the show didn't go on and Master Al is badly beaten up and misses his late wife sorely - they were so lovey dovey, they compare their love to a sewer - long, wide and deep. But there are people watching out for the old man - his wife's sister, Terina, and two of his young neighbours next door.

The old man winds up living in an apartment in housing redeveloped after his villa was demolished. Though his long-time home is gone, he is taken care of by his neighbours-turned-godchildren and Terina continues to keep an eye on him.

The people of the town never did find out if Master Al's attacker was indeed human, but the authorities are happy to play up talk of mysterious humans for tourists.

The novel is about poverty and tourism, Crace said when interviewed earlier, but these themes do not leave much impression.

Instead, the parts on Master Al's devotion to his wife and the unusual family unit he forms with Terina and his neighbours are the most affecting.

The Melody is akin to a feel-good sitcom with a likeable cast of characters, but sadly, is one that is thin on ideas.

If you like this, read: Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador, 2014, $19.11, Books Kinokuniya), an award-winning and haunting novel about how the arrival of a few outsiders threatens the survival of a small farming community in early modern England.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2018, with the headline ''Sitcom' that is thin on ideas'. Subscribe