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.’
Ella has known Robert all her life. 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.
Every now and again I come across a book that is so unique, so different, that I am left reeling. When the Music Stops is one of those books.
The story takes us through the ‘seven stages of woman’ (inspired by Shakespeare’s seven stages of man in As You Like It *) – from Ella’s life as a child in Glasgow and her first experience of losing someone close to her when she was still a child, to now, when she is old. She is on a boat. It is starting to sink and is gradually filling with water. Ella is 87 and alone apart from a baby which she discovers in a room which has been turned into a nursery. The baby is very young and needs looking after. This part really stressed me out while I was reading. I kept praying nothing would happen to him.
As she grows up, she meets a lot of people while playing the guitar in various bands and as a session musician. A few of those people have a marked impact on her life and some of them die too soon – I’m sure we have all experienced this. My friend Sally suddenly left school one day when we were about 14 and never returned. We all knew she was ill. I didn’t see her again until she was 35. In the intervening time she had married, divorced, miscarried twice, had kidney failure and a heart attack. She died a few months later. She was 36. I think she would be on my boat if I had one, along with my sister who died before I was born.
Suddenly Ella is no longer alone on the boat. Her first visitor is someone we know to be dead. We then go back to Ella’s twenties, where someone else close to her dies and they also turn up on the boat. We know they are dead and that Ella is not, and I still kept worrying about the baby, not being sure if he was really there, other than the fact that he needed feeding and changing. Like the dog in the laundry basket in The Sixth Sense, to begin with I just wasn’t sure if he was also dead.
One constant in Ella’s life is Robert, also a musician – music is the theme that runs through Ella’s life – and the older brother of her best friend Rene. He is always there, yet not there, and neither can admit how they really feel. They seem to live parallel lives, which never come together. As the reader you really want them to.
Towards the end I was totally overwhelmed and had to take a break or I would have started crying and not been able to stop. Writing this review made me cry. It is rare for a story to have such a profound effect on me and make me feel so happy and sad at the same time. This is one book I will definitely read again (and I almost never do that). One of my top three books of 2020.
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours and to NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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.
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.
“All the world’s a stage” – Jacques’ monologue from As You Like It by William Shakespeare *