Recently I have been trying to read as much as possible, to read outside of my usual comfort zone of crime and historical fiction. I came across The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto in Waterstone’s. I was intrigued by the title and the fact that Magic Strings has been compared to Forest Gump. I have come across Mitch Albom before, his book The Five People You Meet in Heaven was recommended to me by a friend and I’m ashamed to say it is still sitting on my bookshelf. I’m waiting for the right time to take it in. But I thought that this sounded like a lighter option, plus as a music lover I was interested to see how Albom would weave musical history with fact.
The novel follows the life of Frankie Presto, a famous musician who is surrounded by mystery. His music takes on somewhat mystical qualities when he disappears from fame for years, returning to fame when he dies in unusual circumstances and famous faces from the music world turn up at his funeral.
This is an unusual novel. It is structured between several strands, picking up different moments in Frankie’s life, interspersed with interviews with people who knew him, or at least knew the persona he had on stage. Narrated by Music itself, the novel has a magical feel to it from the beginning. There is something otherworldly about being talked to by music about one of his greatest disciples (as Music describes Frankie throughout). It does feel as though this novel is from a previous time, Albom uses real historical events, not just musical, but world events, to place the story in fact, making you wonder if the elusive Frankie Presto actually existed.
Albom uses well crafted sentences and carefully chosen words to craft a story that is filled with twists and turns, surprising changes of pace and a wide cast of characters.
However, this has not been my favourite novel. I did not fly through the pages like I normally do, I found myself yearning to move on. There was something stilted about the changing narrative, the movement between Frankie’s stories and the interviews with his friends and fans created too many breaks, losing momentum about half way through. I felt that the voice of Music was relied on too heavily to maintain the mystic tone throughout, when in fact the twists and turns felt too contrived. The artist has to suffer, therefore he drinks, he harms himself, he doesn’t treat his family well. Unfortunately, about half way through Albom moves away from the surprising and drifts into clichés about artistic life that just don’t feel as though they belong in the story.
Although a good ending and an interesting read, I feel that there are still some issues with this book. I wanted to love it. The title, the blurb, the writer, it had me hooked. But the story just trailed away, once the pace was lost, once things began to fall apart not because of any real event but because of some inner turmoil that I didn’t fully understand, I found myself losing interest. Of course this is personal taste. If you are looking for originality of form, an unusual voice, then this could be the novel for you.
As a writer I take from this novel that unusual form can be overdone and that what begins as an unusual story must hold the readers attention, rather than depending on the promises of further oddities if the reader keeps going. I don’t want to find myself waiting for the big finish, I want to find myself trying to read more slowly, to savour every word.