When the Music Stops is a perfectly pleasant if somewhat predictable wee novel. We meet Ella at seven different points in her life, from a childhood in working class Glasgow, through WW2 to the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in 60s era London and a, (slightly baffling), late career move to nursing. Throughout her turbulent life three things about Ella remain constant: her love of music, particularly the guitar, her complicated love affair with Robert and the fact that people seem to die around her with worrying frequency. I’m not going to say too much about the premise of this novel. It’s not the kind of book I would usually read. I found it quite contrived and a little thin, but I can also see why readers might enjoy it as a piece of escapism.
Each of the seven chapters from Ella’s life are framed by short sections from her final days as an elderly women. Ella is living with dementia. We know this because on several occasions she tells us she’s living with dementia. She is eighty seven years old and trapped on a boat lost at sea with her infant grandson. The incidents which led up to this scenario are never quite explained but an elderly woman with dementia, adrift at sea acts as a handy plot device through which the author draws all the various themes at play in Ella’s life together. One by one seven dead people join Ella on the boat offering her advice and practical assistance in helping her to get the baby to safety. It’s made quite clear that these people are all figments of her imagination and yet the reality is she is still able to hoist a main sail, lower lifeboats, find and fire flare guns and all sorts of things which I found completely implausible given the fact that great pains are taken to remind us just how much her memory and capability have been diminished.
I’ve raised the question of dementia as a plot device a number of times in these book reviews. I completely understand that the nature of fiction means that characters often exist primarily to serve the story’s plot. However, I do think that when it comes to using a character with dementia to advance a plot or create dramatic tension, the writer should endeavour to ensure the depiction is well-researched, fully-formed and accurate. I didn’t find the character of Ella as depicted in the “dementia” sections of this novel at all believable. She is confused, forgetful and frail when it suits the plot and at other times uncharacteristically competent. When the Music Stops is a light, fun read and as such is quite enjoyable but I don’t think it stands up as a dementia narrative.
When the Music Stops was published by Harper Collins in 2020