Friday, 11 March 2016

Melissa by Jonathan Taylor

review by Maryom

When seven year old Melissa Comb dies in her home in Stoke on Trent, her neighbours all experience the same hallucination - at first a shrieking, headache-inducing noise, which makes them go into the street, followed by uplifting "old-fashioned" music, which spreads a mood of happiness and pride among them. For a short while, the inhabitants of the street come together, putting aside their differences and behaving as old friends. But soon the media move in, followed by scientists trying to pin down the cause of the phenomenon, then religious groups/new age believers set up a camp in the street, and this small part of Stoke becomes a destination for spiritual holiday tours. While all this is unfolding, the only family who DIDN'T hear anything, Melissa's own, are having to come to terms with their loss. Hiding behind their drawn curtains, the Comb family is slowly falling apart...

Melissa avoids the sensational, sentimental, and over-emotional traps and offers an unblinkered view  of a family trying to make sense of tragedy. So far, it's rather like Carys Bray's A Song For Issy Bradley , but whereas the Bradleys for all their differing opinions behave as a family, the Combs lack that cohesion and act as individuals, each filled with frustration, anger and grief. Melissa is definitely a darker yet quirkier read.
Having been the one most closely involved with Melissa's illness, her mother Lizzie is the one most prepared to pick life up, and start again, but another blow that comes through the media's interference almost floors her. Teenaged half-sister Serena doesn't know how to grieve; her mother is abroad, contributing only financially to Serena's life, and father Harry is lost in his own world since Melissa's death. Although they try their best, her friends just don't know how they can help her, and Serena is left to work things out alone. Harry, though, is the one who really can't cope. He just can't see how carrying on is possible but wishes that, like a piece of music, life would end; gradually he retreats into himself - from work, from communication with his family, from the world.

Melissa is a curious read -  it's told in a variety of styles (with snippets from newspapers and scientific journals), it's not as straightforward as you may like (starting with the musical phenomenon then moving back to Melissa's illness), and it only gradually seems to focus in on the real heart of the story - but its quirkiness appealed to me. Of course it's bleak - after all it's dealing with the death of a much-loved child, and the family's disintegration afterwards, but it's told with a sense of wry humour (particularly as regards the habits and 'goings-on' of the neighbours), and the 'coda' at the end leaves the reader feeling that, no matter what, life does carry on. 

Is it a book I'd say I loved? Well, it's too dark for that, but it's a quiet, slowly revealing story one I could read again and again.

Jonathan Taylor's earlier novel Entertaining Strangers didn't quite grab me when I first read it - too many ants among other things! - but I always felt it was a book worth re-reading. Having been so impressed with Melissa, it's time I did just that!

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Salt Publishing

Genre - Adult literary fiction

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