Book review: The Museum of Forgotten Memories by Anstey Harris

(cover image courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia)

It’s hard to say whether it’s an unwillingness to face up to the stark realities of someone dying and the deleterious effect that has on the living left behind or a desperate need to delusionally convince ourselves that life is lot more happy than it actually is, but grief is a poorly understood concept for a lot of people.

There’s this prevalent idea that you’re sad for while, that you grieve the loss of that person nearest and dearest to you and then you bounce to life as normal; sure you’re sadder than you are and there’s a great big hole in your life that only the dearly departed can fulfill but time heals all wounds and all that and given enough space between the event and the rest of your existence, it’s possible to get back to some semblance of business as usual.

But, of course, that can’t ever happen can it, something that comes through loud and liberatingly clear in Anstey Harris’s The Museum of Forgotten Memories, which takes us to Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World, a place filled with stuffed animals and rare treasures on an estate in the English countryside which is, sadly, well past its once curiosity-driven prime.

Into that mouldy and forgotten place comes Cate Morris, widowed after the untimely death of her beloved husband Richard some four years earlier, and her son Leo, forced to leave London by Cate’s redundancy from her teaching job with their only option taking up residence in the sprawling home of Richard’s family’s ancestral estate.

Neither of them wants to leave their lives in London, a place that night hold some bad memories from the lead-up to Richard’s death and his eventual passing, but which also provides a security of sorts, a safety net that acknowledges that while Richard may be lost to them, the life they led isn’t.

“Leo has been with his friends since nursery, most of them. And we’ve lived in the flat for as long as he can remember. After Richard died, when we were completely lost, we still had all that. I want that too. I had thought about day trips back to London, liaisons with friends – we could easily drive there – but we need to get used to our new lives first.” (P. 48)

But the grim reality is that grief doesn’t make allowances for what we want.

It doesn’t respect our wish that it had never arrived at all, it doesn’t refrain from upending our existential apple carts to the point where nothing remains in place from the time before our loved one’s death and it certainly doesn’t guarantee we will be able to forge a life entirely to our liking in the aftermath.

Cate isn’t happy at being back at Richard’s home in Crouch-on-Sea, a place he spurned comprehensively after some unshared family trauma, and nor is Leo, with their collective misery not helped by the caretaker on site, Araminta, a less-than-pleasant woman in her 60s who has been with the family for years and who clearly see Cate and Leo’s arrival as an attack upon her cosy domesticity and the greater good of the Lyons-Morris dynasty that she has sworn to safeguard and protect.

It is fairly obvious from the get-go, but not in a bad way, The Museum of Forgotten Memories will reach some sort of happy-ever-after place but Harris, writing with real empathy and understanding and an acutely affecting understanding of the human condition under severe pressure, doesn’t let her characters reach that place easily.

Instead, life in all its contrary messiness is allowed to do it worst, with Cate, still mired in Richard’s loss, unable to slip loose the bonds of grief like it’s a too-loose item of clothing and more onto the happiness that might be hers among the stuffed animal exhibits and sprawling, statue-studded grounds.

Anstey Harris (image courtesy official Anstey Harris website)

Mixing together despair and hopefulness, the fast bonds of past loss and future possibility, The Museum of Forgotten Memories is resolutely honest about the grip that grief can take on you.

In this case, it’s not just Cate’s grief but secrets held by Araminta and others who come into her life over the course of the book, with each person illuminating the idea that while we might want to get back to what we had before, there may no before left to get back to and that perhaps it’s only by embracing past pain and a hopeful future that we can ever make any progress.

Much of the story in The Museum of Forgotten Memories takes places in an entirely realistic one step forward, three steps back limbo where you can taste the possibility of grief loosening its hold only to find its claws sinking still deeper into you.

That’s not to say that the book makes for depressing reading; on the contrary, there are enough wonderful moments, especially when it comes to how Leo comes alive in leaps and bounds, to infuse the book with soul-stirring inspiration and hope.

But for all the warmhearted moments, the sense that things are getting better, many of which are permanent and thankfully lasting, there are enough times where it begins to feel, particularly for Cate, that she will never pull herself out from under Richard’s largely but not entirely welcoming shadow.

“There is happiness that hides here: in the commitment of the local people – our neighbours – to help us, the kindness of people who were mostly strangers until they walked down our drive today.” (P. 250)

All of which means that The Museum of Forgotten Memories, for all its warmhearted, uplifting elements and the whimsicality of its setting, feels very real in a way that doesn’t feel oppressive but liberating.

You begin to feel as you read it as if here is someone who gets grief, understands and appreciates how it works, who knows that for all our longing to move on, and the mistaken idea by others that grief comes with a neat and tidy expiry date – sometimes you wish it didn’t, other times you’re glad it doesn’t because you don’t want to lose that person you have lost all over again – that life isn’t quite that amenable to being tied up with a pretty red bow of convenience.

There are times in the book where you think all the cliched happy pieces of this type of restorative story are falling into place, but Harris cleverly and rewardingly subverts expectations, quite a few times in fact, and keeps the characters of The Museum of Forgotten Memories on their toes.

After all, life doesn’t make things easier in the real world, so why should it be any difference in a novel.

But the message is ultimately about how you can move on from the debilitating horrors of loss, and while it may not how you think it will or even when you think it will, it will happen in some form of another since while the past can exert a heavy pull where grief is concerned, the future, if you’re open to it, is every bit as strong and may give you exactly what you didn’t realise you were missing.

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