Facing up to grief and the many ways it ripples into your life is never an easy thing.
The challenge to move on from a tragic event though grows exponentially more difficult when you’re a new dad left alone to raise your unexpected six week old daughter who, like all children, grows ever more inquisitive as she grows older about the mother she never knew but who looms, inevitably, large over her life.
Quite how you deal with this almost impossible situation forms the backbone of Carys Bray’s delightfully warm, complex and humourous novel The Museum of You, which examines with richness of personal experience and profound insight what it is like when grief, and the life that follows whether you’re ready for it or not, fills in all the unsaid moments.
Darren, a bus driver who lives in Southpoint, Merseyside (close to Liverpool) with his irrepressible daughter Clover, lost his wife Becky just six weeks after their daughter was born in circumstances that have never really been explained or dealt with fully.
“As he’s got older the world has shrunk. It sometimes feels as if everything is moving around him and he is stuck, feet in concrete.” (P. 23)
Part of that is due to Darren’s desire to protect his daughter from painful emotional associations but much of it derives from his inability to completely process what happened to him, the life he had planned and all the hopes and dreams he had for the future when Becky walked off into oncoming traffic.
While her death is explained somewhat, it’s only to illuminate how it is has affected Darren (and Clover who constantly wonders what her unseen mum was like) who has left everything associated with Becky in a second bedroom, piled up on the floor, the bed and in the wardrobe.
It’s to this room that Clover turns, following a trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum to see a Titanic exhibition, in a bid to understand who her mother was and how she is like her, if at all.
Like any archaeologist, for that is effectively in the vacuum left by Darren’s reticence to talk about his wife’s death, is what Clover most assuredly is, she has to make educated guesses based on the available evidence, which she painstakingly sorts through and catalogues as if she is assembling a museum dedicated to her mother’s memory.
Naturally without the context for many of the items, she leaps to all sorts of conclusions that don’t bear when the truth finally emerges, but with a whole summer to fill in, sorting through all the detritus of her mother’s life is something that feels compelled to do, if only to make some sort of tenuous connection with the mother she never knew.
With a style that is richly lyrical, accessible and neatly balanced between a great many moments of broad and subtle humour, and some deeply moving moments of emotional authenticity, Carys Bray delivers up a profoundly affecting meditation on the way people handle traumatic events in their lives.
If you have ever lost anyone at all, and struggled to move on even as life drags you kicking and screaming away from moment of loss, you’ll identify with the way Darren, almost fossilised in place by those long ago events which nevertheless remain emotionally as present as the day they happened – so much so that Clover, rather endearingly, calls the face her father makes when becky is raised, his “everything face” since it contains so much pain and anger and a whole lot else besides – struggles to move forward.
While he is surrounded by a metaphorical village of people eager to leap in and help in such as his hilarious elderly neighbour Edna Mackerel (who has a fascinating ability to mispronounce every saying going), childhood friends and brother & sister Colin and Kelly, and even Becky’s brother Jim whose addictions make him unable to help but still present in his brother-in-law and niece’s life, Darren hasn’t used them, pushing everyone but Mrs Mackerel to the margins.
The net effect is that Darren, and by extension, Clover, have had their lives frozen in time, something that serves neither of them well, with Darren a dead man walking and Clover chafing, as she enters her teenage years, who she is in every facet of her being.
“By the time Clover was old enough to ask whether there were any pictures besides the one on the mantelpiece in the lounge and the one in her room, he could only remember the two of Clover and Becky together, which are awful. The pictures in the packet should be up somewhere, he decided. He’d give them to Clover so she could make a proper display, one they’d put up in the lounge – something real and genuine, so much better than her dead-end clues and half-baked assumptions.” (P. 317)
The Museum of You is a joy to read because it doesn’t just recognise how grief warps, distorts and entraps but how, if you can just let it, and by book’s end, Darren is awakening to long-neglected possibilities, it can eventually give birth to a whole new series of rich life experiences.
At no point is Darren judged for freezing up and concentrating simply on being a dad, with deep empathy extended to him, and also to Clover who can’t possibly relate or underneath the kind of grief that has entombed Darren for so long.
Her grief may be more remote from the event itself but it’s still palpable and it’s beautiful watching how Clover does her best to fill a void exacerbated by her father’s still elephant-in-the-room grief; you feel for her and it’s touching to see the naive but knowing ways that she attempts to bridge the chasm between who she is and who she thinks she will be if she can just create the perfect museum for her mother.
There is a great truth and emotional resonance to this book which speaks to almost every aspect of the human condition from loss to gains, from deep sadness to incipient sadness, a richly-wrought meditation on how grief can destroy and wreck but how, given time and aptitude, it can be turned into something beautiful again.