Tag Archives: The Museum of Cathy

Six Degrees of Separation – from It to Mrs Hemingway #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Stephen King’s It which I haven’t read and have absolutely no intention of doing so. Far too cowardly!

I know very little about King’s novel but the blurb tells me it’s set in Maine which gives me the opportunity to scuttle quickly back into my comfort zone. J. Courtenay Sullivan’s novel Maine has a New England summer home setting and family secrets to reveal, both favorites for me.

Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of the best family secrets novels I’ve read. A multitude of clues are spilled finally revealing what’s been puzzling Ruby Lennox for much of her life. Atkinson’s beautiful structured, often very funny novel won her the Whitbread Book of the Year award back in 1995 before it became the Costa.

The eponymous Cathy from Anna Stothard’s The Museum of Cathy is also keeping secrets, this time from her fiancé. The arrival of a package with no name or note attached threatens to unravel her new life in this nicely taut novel which has some gorgeous descriptions of the natural world.

The Museum of Cathy is set in Berlin leading me to Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin in which six people – all Nabokov aficionados, all visitors to the city – gather together to discuss the work of their literary hero but begin by telling their own stories.

Jones is also the author of Sixty Lights about a woman’s fascination with the newly emerging photographic technology which leads me to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, an homage to woman photographers. It follows the life of Amory Clay from snapping socialites to documenting war in a career spanning much of the twentieth century. You could think of it as the female equivalent to Any Human Heart if you’re a Boyd fan.

In his novel’s acknowledgements Boyd mentions the war photographer Martha Gellhorn, one of the three wives of Ernest Hemingway whose stories were fictionalised in Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway. I put off reading Wood’s novel for some time owing to my Hemingway antipathy but enjoyed it very much.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a fraught New England summer holiday to the South of France in the 1920s, equally fraught at times. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard: Tainted love

Cover imageBack in 2012 Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel was longlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. In case you’re wondering Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles won it that year. I remember enjoying Stothard’s novel very much. It may have been the jacket with its powder blue, low slung car parked outside a pastel desert hotel that first attracted me but the story of a young girl who travels to her estranged mother’s funeral hoping to find out more about her was nicely turned out and engrossing with it. The same could be said of The Museum of Cathy with its compulsive tale of obsession and memory, although I’m not entirely sure about that jacket.

Cathy is thrown off-kilter when a swallow flies into her office at the Berlin Natural History Museum. It’s not that she’s afraid of birds but despite her training as a scientist it’s her mother’s superstition that a trapped bird is a bad omen which springs to mind. She’s watched with amusement by her fiancé Tom. It’s a big day for both of them. The museum is celebrating its 150th birthday with a dinner for the great and good at which Cathy is to receive an award. These two have been together for five years. Tom is a straightforward kind of guy to whom Cathy is an enigma, barely acknowledging her troubled childhood, body covered in scars and mind full of erudition. Later in the day Cathy unwraps a package, chilled by what she finds inside – no name or note, just a kissing beetle perfectly caught in amber. She knows it’s from Daniel, the man she fled five years ago just before he was jailed thanks to her tip-off. She and Daniel are bound by something which he calls love but she does not, sharing a past fraught with tragedy and guilt. Over the course of one hot Berlin day, Stothard’s novel unravels Cathy’s story beginning with her Essex childhood.

Flitting back and forth between Berlin and Essex, The Museum of Cathy unfolds in a series of flashbacks woven through the increasingly dramatic events in Berlin. Stothard perceptively explores the complexity of desire, guilt and obsession through Cathy’s tortured relationship with Daniel. Her language is simple yet striking: ‘She felt dirty all the time and as if there was no release from the trouble in her head’ summons up Cathy’s guilt and grief; ‘He’d seen Cathy’s face in the white light as he ruined the man’s shins and jaws’ conveys Daniel’s uncontrollable rage and its focus. The novel’s drama plays out against a backdrop of gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, from Cathy’s fearless childhood explorations of the Essex coastline to the contents of the Berlin museum. Throughout it all runs a taut thread of tension. It’s a short, sharp novel, quickly swallowed up in an afternoon, which takes its readers – perhaps a little too neatly – full circle. Very different from The Pink Hotel but I enjoyed it enormously.