Friday, 4 October 2019

Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
For many people there comes a moment, when they look back on life and re-evaluate the choices that they made along the way. Often it’s an event that draws attention to how fragile and short a human life is – like the death of someone close – that inspires such contemplation of what they did or failed to do. The lucky ones will find that overall they missed nothing that really mattered and have little to complain about, while others may be weighed down by the memory of lost opportunities and abandoned dreams. The Englishwoman past sixty who starts the correspondence of Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson did all her life what needed to be done or what others expected of her. Now her best friend died and they never got round to making true their almost lifelong dream of seeing the Tollund Man in his museum in Denmark…

Anne Youngson was born in London, England, U.K., in 1947. After her studies of English at Birmingham University, she started working as an engineer in the car industry and stayed in the trade for thirty years ending her career as senior executive. During these years, she also got married and had two children. Although she noted down ideas and stories more or less all her life, she seriously turned to writing only after her early retirement and returned to university. She obtained an undergraduate diploma at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. In 2018, she made her successful literary debut with the epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum. The author is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Oxford Brookes University and is working on her second novel. Anne Youngson lives near Burford, Oxfordshire, England, U.K., with her husband.

When the farmer’s wife Tina Hopgood from Bury St. Edmonds in England writes a letter to Professor Glob in Denmark more than half a century after he addressed her and her school-mates in the introduction to a popular science book about the Tollund Man, she has no idea that it’s the first of a series of letters that will before long carry the implicit message Meet Me at the Museum. As she half expects, the professor has long died, but a curator from the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, Anders Larsen, takes the time to answer her and she writes back.
“It was generous of you to reply to my letter to Professor Glob, and to try to answer what you understood my questions to be. But they were not questions. The reason I have not visited has nothing to do with the problems of travel. I have passed my sixtieth birthday but am nonetheless quite fit. I could go tomorrow. […] I have always been physically able to climb onto a plane, or indeed a ferry, to Denmark.”
More to herself than to Anders Larsen, she explains how reading Professor Glob’s book made her and her best friend Bella long for visiting together the Tollund Man at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark. They were only schoolgirls then, but the dream stayed with them all their lives and the thought that one day they would make it true carried them through most difficult moments. Not once, though, the time seemed right for their trip and then Bella died from breast cancer leaving Tina at a loss because she never planned to go alone. Anders Larsen encourages Tina to come.
“[…] You mention your husband and children. If you do not wish to make the journey alone, could you not come with some member of your family? I have children myself — my wife, alas, is not with me anymore — and they will usually do something with me I do not care to do alone. They humor me, I think is the English expression. It would be a pleasure to me to show you the museum, […].”
With every letter travelling back and forth between England and Denmark, Tina and Anders gain confidence in each other and open up ever more. Before long, they begin to discuss private matters, experiences and views like close, even intimate friends who have known for a long time although in reality, they have never met. At Anders’s suggestion, they switch to sending e-mails and printing them out (in order not to lose the sensual pleasure of the paper letter) because it reduces the time waiting for an answer considerably. Thus, the emotional bond between the two constantly strengthens as time passes…

Under the inviting title Meet Me at the Museum unfolds an epistolary novel based on the correspondence of two first-person narrators that spans about sixteen months and covers a wide range of subjects starting with the Tollund Man and the bog people. The author’s choice of literary form for a story set in the Digital Age may seem anachronistic because writing snail mail letters has gone quite out of fashion even among the older generations, and yet, it feels more than just appropriate. The perspectives of the narrating protagonists alternate and are inevitably limited by the experience, knowledge and frankness of each. With the strangers getting to know each other better and becoming close friends despite the geographical distance, contents and tone of the letters change gradually from formal and matter-of-fact to private, even intimate. This feels authentic and together with musings about the lure of snail mail correspondence, it leads me to believe that the author must know first-hand the dynamics of a pen-friendship in the making. The language of the letters is plain and unpretentious, maybe rather too perfect for a Danish museum curator and a bit too polished for an English farmwoman however well-read she may be.

For me as a committed writer of snail mail letters, Meet Me at the Museum by Ann Youngson has been a particular pleasure to read although not a pure one. In fact, the novel’s ending was a bit of a let-down because it repeats the widely held and nonetheless erroneous opinion that a pen-friendship (or any other friendship) between a woman and a man will easily turn into love. This can happen, of course, but it’s the exception, not the rule. In contrast, I really appreciated the deep discussions of the two. And it was a welcome extra to learn a few things about the Tollund Man who was found in a Danish bog and inspired Seamus Heaney, the 1995 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, to write the poem that served the author as epigraph and starting point for her novel. In other words: a highly recommendable novel!

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