Two years ago, just a couple of months after being discharged from a mental health unit, I sat in front of the TV and watched a man take a Steinway into a psychiatric hospital. I listened as he talked about his own experiences of mental illness, about how classical music saved his life and then he played a piece by Rachmaninov (his Prelude in c sharp minor, if you are interested) and my brain stopped for the first time in months. I had been unable to read a book or follow a TV show, I couldn’t breathe without an overwhelming sense of anxiety and then suddenly I experienced this moment of peace and that’s when I fell into the world of classical music.
Here’s the thing about classical music though, it can feel complicated and, at the beginning, difficult to relate to and the thing that I found so wonderful about James Rhodes is that he can take a huge piece of music, something complex and filled with emotion and history, and take it apart from the inside and, using his own experiences, explain it in such a way that the pieces all fall back into place and suddenly you get it. When I was reading Instrumental this is how I felt again; he took his own life, some experiences that I could relate to and some that I would never have been able to comprehend before, and lay it all out, only this time he uses Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and their works to help us understand him instead of the other way around.
This book fell through my letterbox on Saturday afternoon and I had finished it that evening but it was not easy going, it is the story of child rape, drug addiction and mental illness, and it can be brutal and heart breaking at times. Rhodes is unflinchingly honest and this is powerful reading. When child abuse is discussed these days it tends to be about the act itself, there seems to be mass outrage at the perpetrator and then the story is soon forgotten, which is why I think that this book is so important. People don’t discuss the effects that these things will have on someone, not only throughout their childhood but for the rest of their lives, physically, mentally and socially, and nobody wants to talk about that because we live in world that likes happy endings and that doesn’t want to deal with anything that might make us feel uncomfortable. That this book was almost banned makes it even more important, it is essential that these stories get told, that people can know that they are not alone and that they can speak out.
Despite the subject matter, despite the loss of innocence and childhood and peace of mind, this story is ultimately one of hope. It is about second chances and how, even if the future looks uncertain and even if we will never truly be OK, there is still beauty and love and music, and that is why it feels like more than a memoir; it is a love letter to classical music, it is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, it will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will also make it very hard for you not to fall a little bit in love with James Rhodes, who comes across as vulnerable, potty-mouthed, mischievous and utterly likeable.
If you do read this (and I really hope that you do) I definitely recommend that you listen to the soundtrack as you read, each piece was obviously chosen with great care and it definitely made the experience.