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The Melody’s (entirely) fictional world

Picador Senior Commissioning Editor Sophie Jonathan shares the secretof the perplexing epigraphin Jim Crace's new novel, The Melody.

Picador Senior Commissioning Editor Sophie Jonathan shares the secret of the perplexing epigraph in Jim Crace's new novel, The Melody.

There is one thing that devoted Crace fans look out for in his novels, and it's normally something they find beyond the edges of the stories themselves. With his 1986 debut, Continent, Jim Crace began a tradition of fabricating his epigraphs by quoting from the (entirely fictional) ‘the Histories of Pycletius'.

With the publication of each of his books he enjoyed the fallout of his trickery immensely:

The Toronto Star informed me that Pycletius was ‘the Greek historian and geographer', while the TLS, as you'd expect, considered his works to be ‘arcane and irksomely septimal' . . . and the New York Review of Books swallowed ‘the real archaeologist, Sir Harry Penn Butler' [the ‘author' of the epigraph to The Gift of Stones] hook, line and sinker. Even Frank Kermode fell for ‘Harry'.

In The Melody he's back to his old tricks, but even more intriguingly for a book that is so rich with the detail of its unnamed setting, the beginning and end matter are linked to the fictional landscape of the novel.

Any reader of The Melody, therefore, should play close attention to the quote from Alan Tancred's One Hundred Towns of Character and Charm that Crace extracts at the novel's opening. It refers to the statue of a naked boy in one such town of ‘character and charm', and even the precise year the statue was erected. All wonderful fodder for the clue-hunting reader.

At the novel's close Crace's acknowledgements promise to mention to thank the people of . . . but at the turn of the page the reader finds that there is an apparent printing error – the acknowledgements are incomplete. We'll never know the name of that town or work out where it is.

‘My books dislocate the reader rather than locate them... the coastal town where The Melody is set combines elements of several places, but I want it to feel real enough that the reader feels they could go there,' said Crace, in a recent interview in the Financial Times. ‘I find real acknowledgements so self-congratulatory that they blunt the fiction. I'm allowing fiction to seep in the front and back of the book, so that everything is entirely invented.'

So readers beware, Jim Crace's fiction stretches beyond the bounds of his novel. And once you've finished The Melody, take some time to read the short acknowledgements and return to that epigraph – it's worth being in on this joke.

The Melody

by Jim Crace

Book cover for The Melody


'The Melody takes its place among his finest [novels] . . . an ecological fable for modern times' Guardian
'Seductively atmospheric . . . deeply moving' Daily Mail
'Brilliant' Observer

Alfred Busi, famed in his town for his music and songs, is mourning the recent death of his wife and quietly living out his days in the large villa he has always called home. Then one night Busi is attacked by a creature he disturbs as it raids the contents of his larder. Busi is convinced that what assaulted him was no animal, but a child, ‘innocent and wild’, and his words fan the flames of old rumour – of an ancient race of people living in the bosk surrounding the town – and new controversy: the town’s paupers, the feral wastrels at its edges, must be dealt with. Once and for all.

Lyrical and warm, intimate and epic, The Melody by Jim Crace tracks the few days that will see Busi and the town he loves altered irrevocably. This is a story about grief and ageing, about reputation and the loss of it, about love and music and the peculiar way myth seeps into real life. And it is a political novel too – a rallying cry to protect those we persecute.