“Please be aware I am writing to you to make sense of myself…”
So sometimes I will blog about books and reading, not all the time and I will be selective, not inflicting every book I read on anyone who is bored enough/ kind enough to drop by and read Gum trees and Galaxies. The books I do choose to post on will generally be the ones that I really liked, Meet me at the Museum is one of those.
What an absolute gem of a book this gentle, epistolary novel is. A novel of of midlife discovery and growth, a seize the day kind of story. On losing her best friend to cancer Tina Hopgood, looks back at life and the things she and her friend always meant to do. A child hood fascination with the Tollund man leads Tina to send an unsolicited letter to the curator at the museum that houses the mummified remains, an Iron age bog body, what results, is an exchange of letters that reveal a growing friendship and journey of discovery for two very different but lonely people.
This lovely epistolary novel is a celebration of life and possibility at any age, a debut novel from a septuagenarian author, it celebrates the lost art of letter writing and reflection. Anne Youngson has waited until retirement to produce this, her first novel, proving that writing success can come at any age, with the novel short listed for the Costa First novel prize in 2018. It seems appropriate that this is a novel about second chances, and being alert to opportunities at any time in life.
As children, Tina and her friend, were amongst a group of school girls to whom an expert on the iron age and the Tollund man, had dedicated a book. On impulse Tina sends off a letter to the professor, only to have it answered by the current curator at the museum housing the Tollund man, explaining the professor is himself now deceased. What follows is an exchange of letters increasing in familiarity and friendship as the two very different people reflect on life. Both Tina and Anders have experienced loss, and loneliness, they share stories about their children and their lives, deepening their own understanding of themselves in the process. A farmers wife, Tina writes evocatively of the natural world, while Anders lends meaning to Tina’s experience of that world, pointing out the pheasant shoot she sees as slightly ridiculous is actually a highly ritualised act. Anders own story is as compelling as Tina’s, as the letters slowly reveal the strange story of his wife. Tina and Anders begin to share their children’s stories and dramas, reflecting on the choices they are also making. Things as everyday as a feather, raspberries, or an unfurling fern frond become imbued with meaning and poetry in this evocative novel.
The novel not only tells the story of these two people it celebrates the joy of writing, the time it takes to consider, reflect and thoughtfully reply. In an age of instant communication and gratification the novel highlights the shallowness of our digital exchanges and puts a focus on the idea of slow communication; the old fashioned letter, suggesting that email and digital exchanges cheat us of deeper thought and engagement with others:
…I may as well confess, now, that when your first letter to Professor Glob arrived and I picked it up to reply,I was irritated you had not included an email address. If you had, I would have replied at once by email. I would have written something like: ‘I am afraid Professor Glob is no longer with us. If you wish to visit the museum, please see the website,’ and I would have copied and pasted the link and clicked on ‘send’. I have found that it is no use to write an email longer than three or four lines, because whoever receives it will not read to the end.
Instead, I had to compose a letter. I could picture you reading the letter and I imagined you would do this slowly and carefully, so I felt I needed to write my letter to you slowly and carefully. I had to be sure I had read yours to Professor Glob slowly and carefully so that I could be sure to address the points you made. So we have gone on. We have written at length and thoughtfully, and to do this, we have both had to read the letters we received in a thoughtful way. The writing and the reading have both been such an unexpected pleasure to me, I would like to be sure we will not lose this – that is the length and thoughtfulness…(p.50)
I think what drew me to this novel was the idea that the whole story revolved around something as abstract as a museum exhibit, a long dead iron age man. I am fascinated about how people react to objects and art. Museums and galleries are creative playgrounds of the imagination. I am fascinated by authors who are inspired by a work of art or an object like the Tollund man. The poet Seamus Heaney was also inspired by the bog man and it is that poem that also feeds into this novel: “Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eye-lids… ” I am fascinated by the way we imbue objects with meaning, and not always the meaning the original creator intended, an iron age sacrifice is a case in point, from one story we can spawn so many others. Art and objects have the capacity to possess us, to haunt us, in a way writing themselves into our very souls and I find that process fascinating in itself. Narrative is such a normal and necessary human attribute, telling ourselves stories is how we make sense of the world and we should never lose sight of how important story telling is and how meaning making is such a defining attribute of our humanity. Storytelling and mindful engagement is how we make sense of our world and ourselves.