REVIEW by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

NWR Issue r11

The Museum of You

by Carys Bray

In her debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray explored a family’s responses to the sudden death of its youngest member, the four-year-old Issy of the title. It was visceral, tender, sometimes extraordinarily funny, and so perceptive. With readers’ expectations set high, it must have felt a difficult one to follow. But Bray is a confident and gifted writer, who has boldly returned to the themes of loss and grief, and how we cope with them as individuals and families. The angle of vision is different and The Museum of You takes a little longer to settle into its stride, but once again Bray has given us a novel that enters this most difficult territory with compassion and insight, but also with a sense of humour and optimism.

It is summer, and the story opens with twelve-year-old Clover watering and tending the allotment while her father, Darren, is at work. The images are intense, full of the colour and light of summer, and as she fills the bucket and watering-can and waters the plants, Clover thinks, ‘This is happiness.’ Every night, before she goes to bed, Darren asks her to tell him three happy things from her day. They can be small, simple things, like sunshine or a favourite pudding. It’s a little ritual that she enjoys, and which also reveals Darren’s anxiety. How does a father bring up a little girl on his own? How does he know if he’s getting things right? How can he be sure she’s happy?

Clover’s mum, Becky, died suddenly when Clover was just six weeks old, and when Darren was only twenty-four. Somehow he had to cope with his grief while being solely responsible for a baby, and an utterly unexpected baby at that. Clover knows the story of how their kindly neighbour, Mrs Mackerel, heard Becky’s cries, rushed next door, and found herself delivering little Clover on the kitchen floor. But she doesn’t know much more than that, and there are just two, not very good, photographs of her and Becky together. She wants to know more about her mum, but Darren has always been reluctant to talk about her. So, inspired by a school trip to the Titanic exhibition in Liverpool, Clover decides to design and curate an exhibit, ‘Becky Brookfield – the Untold Story’. Her display items will come from her parents’ bedroom, which Darren closed the door on when Becky died. Nothing has been thrown away, from dozens of holiday brochures to underwear to a plaited piece of hair as long as Clover’s arm, one bobble at the top and another at the bottom. This is the treasure trove Clover slowly and secretly mines in search of her mother, and also of herself: ‘She is incomplete, a part-written recipe. How can she imagine what she will be if she only knows half of the ingredients?’ What Clover comes up with is a mosaic of truth and myth, constructing her mother from small snippets of information, things that family and friends have said, and her own naive interpretations of Becky’s belongings.

As in A Song for Issy Bradley, the bereaved family is supported, or not, by a small cast of characters portrayed with a warmth and empathy that makes you love them despite and because of their flaws and foibles. There was a point at which I tired of Mrs Mackerel’s partly capitalised speech and endless malapropisms, and of Becky’s brother Jim’s bad behaviour, but it soon passed. They are all coping as best they can. They are all human. Even Becky’s mother, Maureen, has reasons for her incompetence, though she is the least forgivable. Unlike Darren, she clearly did not put her children first when their father committed suicide. And Becky and Jim suffered for it. Bray is adept in depicting different manifestations of grief and the range of coping mechanisms people adopt, for better or for worse. Maureen has turned to the bottle, Darren’s dad (such a likeable man) is studying Shakespeare: he moved to a flat and pared things down when Darren’s mum died, but he shows no judgment of Darren’s need to hoard and cling on. He is there to help when he’s asked, and he chooses just the right moment to offer Darren advice that he would have rejected any sooner.

In telling her version of her mother’s story, Clover gains a stronger sense of her place in the world, and also forces Darren to look again at his own myth of who Becky was and what happened to her. Grief may linger, but ghosts can be laid to rest.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes is a writer and translator. Her translation of a short story by French author Marie Darrieussecq was published in New Welsh Reader, Issue 111 (summer 2016).




       


previous review: RS Thomas: Too Brave to Dream, Encounters with Modern Art
next review: Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression



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