I wasn’t at all sure that I was going to read Meet Me at the Museum. I thought it might be a little too sentimental for my cynical literary heart but a blow to the head which landed me briefly in A & E and left me with a several stitches, a few staples and a very worried partner had me looking for something easy to read. Anne Youngson’s epistolary novella seemed as if it might be just the ticket.
Tina is mourning her best friend, Bella. Many years ago, when these two were schoolgirls captivated by descriptions of the Tollund Man, they wrote to Professor Glob asking him to tell them about this wonderous discovery of an Iron Age man perfectly preserved in Danish peat. His eventual response was a book, The Bog People, and it is to him that Tina addresses her letter knowing that it’s highly unlikely he’s still alive. Tina and Bella had always planned to visit the Silkeborg Museum where the Tollund Man is displayed but the time was never right. Her letter is answered by Anders, the museum’s curator. This slightly clipped if helpful response might have been the end of it but Tina has more questions to ask and soon an exchange, which each of them comes to eagerly anticipate, is established. Married and pregnant at twenty, Tina slipped into the role of farmer’s wife but Bella’s death has left her wondering what might have been had another choice been made. Anders was widowed just over a year ago. There is much that they share and much that divides them. His children are a little distant from him; Tina’s are firmly present in her life. Tina’s home is cluttered with the bits and pieces of generations; Anders’ house is stripped down and plain. As their correspondence deepens they exchange news, advice and confidences.
In a note at the back of her novella, Youngson tells us that she has a picture of the Tollund Man, clipped from an essay by Seamus Heaney in The Times. If you look him up you’ll find a rather peaceful expression on his face in contrast to the violent death that Anders suggests he had as a propitiatory sacrifice. Somehow it sets the tone for this thoughtful novella which steers well clear of the dreaded saccharine. Tina and Anders’ characters are beautifully drawn, their voices kept distinct. Each is enduring a quiet loneliness, each is dealing with grief yet there are unexpected joys to share. They begin to see the world afresh through each other’s eyes but Youngson is careful to lead them slowly through this friendship into an intimacy that neither enjoys with anyone else despite never having met. Her writing is plain and restrained with a lovely recurring metaphor of the undiscovered raspberries of a life not lived:
Another life, I thought, might be like a second pass down the row of raspberry canes; there would be good things I had not come across in my first life, but I suspect I would find much of the fruit was already in my basket
Not the slightly schmaltzy piece of fiction I’d feared at all, then. More a quiet contemplation of the power of love and a reminder that change, should you want to make it, is possible at any stage of life.