Thursday 18 August 2016

Book Review: The Museum of You by Carys Bray

Carys Bray's A Song for Issy Bradley was a heart-breaking and memorable debut; shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize, it marked her out as an author to watch. If you haven't read it yet, you can find my review here, together with a reading group guide.

Bray's second novel, The Museum of You, mines many similar themes to her first: a family tragedy that finds those left behind struggling in its aftermath, a young person's perspective on the grown ups in her world and an adult's wrong-headed assumptions about a child's needs. In this and its use of the close third person, it has echoes of another recently published novel, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal.

Twelve-year-old Clover Quinn lives with her Dad, Darren, in a magpie house full of stuff he never quite gets around to sorting. It's the summer holidays, the first where Clover is allowed to be on her own; in previous years, she's had to stay with Mrs Mackerel next door while Darren is out working as a bus driver. Clover is  enjoying her new-found freedom - watering plants in the allotment, riding her bike and now, trying to find out more about the past events that are constantly shaping her present.

Meanwhile, Darren watches and worries about his daughter and tries to think of everything she'll need. He surrounds her with things: a skateboard, guitar and plenty of bargain books for her shelves. What he still can't bring himself to give her are answers to the questions she doesn't dare ask, but most wants to find out; ones concerning Becky, the mum she never got to know.

The Museum of You feels as though it has a more playful tone than Issy Bradley. While both are a poignant mixture of laughter and tears, the grief here is older, less raw; a hum that underlies the noise of everyday life. The story's protagonists, Clover and Darren have - in different ways - learnt to live with their loss, but that doesn't make it any less present or overwhelming.

Much of the humour comes from the busybody next door, Mrs Mackerel - a real Mrs Malaprop in her pronouncements:
'LOOK AT YOU' Mrs Mackerel interrupts. 'So GROWN UP all of a sudden. All that HAIR. You're the SPLITTING IMAGE OF YOUR MOTHER, God forgive her. ' 
Clover nods. Hoping for more.
'And your POOR FATHER - the way he put her on a PEDAL STOOL.'

The Museum of You is animated by Bray's feel for creating endearing characters, authentically realised in their day-to-day dealings with the minutiae of loss. Darren is selfless, doing the best he can in a life that turned out so much differently than he thought. Not only is he bringing up his unexpected daughter alone, he's also looking after his wider family.

But it is Clover - the clever, perceptive and funny emotional centre of this story - that you quickly take to your heart; navigating a tentative course towards adolescence without her Mum's help, she finds her own touchingly quirky and pragmatic ways to begin filling in the spaces that Becky left behind.

The Museum of You is published in the UK by Hutchinson. Many thanks to them for my review copy.

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