On the day I started reading Melissa, Jonathan Taylor’s latest novel, NASA released a recording of the strange sounds – ‘alien music’ – heard in May 1969 by a group of Apollo 10 astronauts as they passed by the dark side of the moon, sounds which the trio were initially reluctant to mention to their bosses for fear of being laughed at or excluded from future missions. Now, as it turns out, these sounds likely had far more to do with radio interference than with the output from an alien woodwind ensemble, but the reaction of the astronauts and the interest in this story demonstrates that there’s something that feels essentially human about music: it’s a truly universal experience of the human brain, and we’d be pretty astonished to hear it coming from anywhere else. Taylor’s book is very much concerned with music – its imagery, and the role it plays both as a means of communication and as a collective experience, which taken to its extreme might occur as an event of mass musical hysteria such as is experienced by the residents of Spark Close after the death of a little girl called Melissa.
This book brings together a little girl’s story, the events that surround her death, and the reaction and recovery (and otherwise) of the characters involved. It’s a story of loss, the collective response to disaster, and the disintegration of a family. Adults behaving like children, and teenagers trying to find their feet in a world where the grown-ups have lost the plot. The story is fictional, though Taylor tells us it’s “inspired by true events”, and the mode of telling is similarly a mix of ‘non-fiction’ snippets (mock newspaper articles, etc) mixed with a more traditional style of narration, the two of which blend very well. Jonathan Taylor is clearly a very smart man, and he’s not afraid of throwing in plenty of technical detail and intellectual challenge – music theory, medical knowhow, even a dash of thermodynamics. This works too, though, because he’s also a master of dialogue, and that rattles the story along nicely (apart from – for me – the character Lizzie, who didn’t quite come off the page: too irritating to be real). I feel the book would merit a second read, as there is so much to take on board (perhaps, as Taylor reminds us about the Enigma Variations, there are themes that are never fully revealed) -as regards the events immediately following Melissa’s death, I was reminded of a hive of bees, and the collective, almost telepathic responses those insects have in certain circumstances (unfortunately someone’s borrowed and not yet returned my copy of Laline Paull’s The Bees, so I can’t remind myself of what I’m thinking of here!). Maybe this was an intentional link; after all, Melissa is the Latin for honeybee, and the family are called Comb, and there was at least one reference to the “hive we call home”.
To be honest, I was feeling well-disposed to this book before I even started. I’ve just got back from holiday; I have been impressed with everything I’ve read from its publisher before, and after a rare, negative experience with a holiday read (The Saga of Gosta Berling – recommended by someone with impeccable taste, but I hated it), I was pleased to be reading anything that wasn’t a long-winded Scandinavian folk tale. Melissa is set in Stoke-on-Trent, my husband’s home town (he’s also called Jonathan – by coincidence, though, this is not an inside job; my Jonathan took a Dan Brown book on holiday and is not destined for literary greatness). It does mean that I’m well-placed to know that great things can come from that small Midlands city (and not just things called Jonathan: as my husband often reminds me, there’s also Slash [guitarist], Phil “The Power” Taylor [darts], and The Great British Throw Down [competitive pottery]…). Melissa also has a gorgeous cover, which somehow manages to elevate a terraced street from one of Stoke’s ‘five towns’ into a thing of beauty.
Anyway, I digress. Melissa is a wonderful book. It’s a hugely engaging novel, but it’s also a fascinating exploration of a number of intellectual avenues that have got me thinking. Jonathan Taylor has a short essay on his website which touches on some of these areas, specifically musical hallucinations and some of the neurological aspects of music and its impact on the brain – what he calls its “ancient, telepathic energy”. Well worth a read, once you’ve got your hands on the book.
Melissa is published by SALT, £8.99. “Melissa is set in 1999-2000. At roughly 2pm on 9th June 1999, on a small street in Hanford, Stoke-on-Trent, a young girl dies of leukaemia; at almost the same moment, everyone on the street experiences the same musical hallucination. The novel is about this death and accompanying phenomenon – and about their after-effects, as the girl’s family gradually disintegrates over the following year.”