At first blush, “The Melody” by Jim Crace is a simple, bittersweet tale of an aging crooner nearing the end of his illustrious career.
But by the time you’re a few pages into this slim volume, you realize it’s more than a simple tale — it’s a haunting story of love and loss, empathy and inequity and the galvanizing power of memory, hunger and fear, “the timeless, universal fear of anyone less lucky than ourselves.”
While it’s an easy read, it isn’t a book you’ll easily forget.
When we meet Alfred Busi (affectionately known as Mister Al), he’s only occasionally singing his classics in small venues in the unnamed Mediterranean town where he’s lived all his life.
On the eve of what is likely his last big concert, he’s attacked in his home. By what, it isn’t clear — not to his elegant but frosty sister-in-law, who tends to him in the middle of the night, not to the craven reporter looking for a headline-grabbing story, not even to Mister Al himself.
He comes to believe his attacker is a half-wild human boy, one of an ancient race of humans or one of the many, many poor who inhabit the parks on the wild margins of the town. And while the attack upends Mister Al’s fragile existence, he somehow feels a connection to his attacker, whom he understands, quite rightly, is as threatened as Mister Al himself.
Before the attack, Mister Al was unmoored by the loss of his beloved wife. After, it’s clear he’s also threatened by something more than a midnight intruder: change.
His greedy nephew is pressing Mister Al to sell his seaside villa, which would give way to a massive apartment building. (From which said nephew would profit, of course.) The upstanding citizens of the town are becoming increasingly angered by its poor. And Mister Al is struggling against deep-seated regrets about his past and doubts about his future.
Add to that Crace’s writing — so skillful, so subtle — and the breezy-seeming book becomes layered with meaning and laced with mystery.
Ultimately, “The Melody” leaves you with more questions than answers. What was Mister Al attacked by? Who is the unnamed narrator? It also forces you to grapple with your own sense of right and wrong. How should we treat the homeless? The elderly? The poor? Is so-called progress good or bad? And what, finally, is the difference between animals and humans, whom Crace calls “the animals that dream”?
Those answers can’t be found in the book itself, which will linger in your mind, like a song you can’t get out of your head. A song with a tune you clearly remember, that you can hum to yourself — but you can never quite remember the words.
Connie Nelson is senior lifestyles editor for the Star Tribune.