It’s easy to be drawn into the lives of the characters in Carys Bray’s novel “The Museum of You”. Twelve-year-old Clover is filled with joy as it’s the beginning of the summer holidays so she has time to work in an allotment garden. She lives in North West England with her single father Darren who is a bus driver and next door to Mrs Mackerel, a comical older woman who is a bit deaf: “She has two settings: loud, for normal words, and extra loud, for the words she wants to be certain have been heard.” They have endearing routines where time in front of the television watching a baking show or a movie (rather than isolating them as individuals) creates opportunities when these characters can connect in genuine and realistic ways. Clover herself has a unique perspective of the world as well as a nerdish interest in museums. But there is a striking absence in Clover’s house where her mother Becky’s former room is filled with objects from her life which are understood to be off limits. This is a woman Clover has never known so in secret she goes about collecting and curating an exhibit about her mother’s life as a form of dedication and an act of discovery to understand what happened to her. It’s difficult to find a strategy to write about absence and grief in a way which isn’t maudlin. Yet Bray has created a story which fills your imagination with simple objects that become laden with an enormous amount of emotional meaning. It leads the reader on a path of discovery as Darren must confront painful memories and adjust how he relates to his growing daughter.
It’s quite original to read a story whose story revolves so strongly around a father and daughter. Their relationship is really sensitively drawn. It is obviously very loving, but there are certain kinds of silence which have grown around the missing mother and it is understood between them that it’s a subject not to be broached: “When you grow up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story, you’re forever skating on the thin ice of their memories.” This is a beautiful way of describing how children are affected by painful emotional issues in their parents’ lives. Because Clover is developing into a woman Becky’s absence is felt all the more crucially as Darren fumbles around trying to buy books about womanhood to fill the educational gap a mother could provide.
There are also a group of other fascinating peripheral characters – some of whom played a part in the absent mother’s life and deal with their own forms of trauma. Becky’s brother Jim suffers from mental health problems and when he’s having a bad episode the characters tactfully say that he is “not himself.” Darren’s father is also dealing with the loss of his wife, but he has different strategies for coping with her absence. A Czech immigrant girl Dagmar who goes to Clover’s school is bullied because of her foreignness and she forms a bond with Clover partially as a way of escaping an abusive household. Darren’s closest friend Colin has been separated from his partner Mark because he works abroad making Colin fill his time working hard as a highly skilled self employed handyman. The story delicately weaves together different ways that these diverse individuals deal with feelings surrounding beloved people who have been lost through circumstances beyond their control.
By the end of this novel I felt really emotionally involved with the characters and strongly compelled to understand what happened to Becky. For this reason, this novel reminded me of James Hannah’s “The A to Z of You and Me” in the way it slowly builds a picture of tragic events that led to a central character’s absence. I was also reminded of Stella Duffy’s novel “The Room of Lost Things” for the way in which the novel fills your imagination with lists of objects which carry crucial personal significance to their former owners, but might be seen as worthless to others. “The Museum of You” makes you re-evaluate the sentimental value of the things which fill your home and contemplate how our relationships with others can only really grow and thrive when there is emotional honesty. This is a tenderly written novel filled with lots of comic and meaningful moments.