I've been meaning to read Carys Bray since her first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, came out in 2014, but somehow I never had. Her books have been so well received, and on top of that I felt a certain sort of pride that she had done her MA and PhD at the university where I used to teach. Possibly we even passed each other in the corridors, but she was in the very successful Creative Writing department which didn't overlap with my own English. So I was pleased to be offered a review copy of this, her latest novel, out on 6 April. I also got a bonus copy of her amazing short stories, Sweet Home.
As anyone who has read her will know, Carys Bray's work takes a long and deeply sensitive look at families and relationships, and is interested in the process of grieving. Both these are at the heart of The Museum of You. The novel is told mainly through the perspective of Clover Quinn, who is eleven when the story begins. She lives with her Dad, and knows far too little about her Mum, who died when she was just six weeks old. Darren is a bus driver, and a good kind man who has done an amazing job bringing up his clever, thoughtful little daughter. But he has not managed to deal with the effects of his bereavement and cannot bring himself to talk about it, or about his beloved wife. He has also been unable to face clearing out the main bedroom, once shared with Becky, instead letting it pile up with discarded objects and belongings.
Following a school trip to Liverpool's Maritime Museum, Clover has become fascinated by museums. This year is the first summer holiday that Darren has allowed her to stay home and look after herself while he is at work, and, though she enjoys her daily trips to the allotment to water the veg, she decides to take on a private project. She will create a secret museum in the bedroom, catalogue everything worth keeping and throw out the rubbish. It will be, she thinks, a wonderful surprise for Dad, as well as a way for her to get to know and understand the mother she knows so little about. She is fascinated by the process of sorting and cataloguing, and creates her own stories about the items she uncovers, whether they are books, pictures or clothes. She's got rid of a lot of stuff and created an impressive display by the end of the holidays, and can't wait for Dad to see it all. But when he does, his reaction is not at all what she expected.
You might think, as I did when I first picked this up, that the writing is quite simple and that the story may be predictable. But you would be so wrong. Delicate and perceptive, the novel delves deeply into the feelings of both the protagonists. Certainly it is a story of growing up - quite apart from her search for her mother, which is intimately connected with her own identity, Clover is becoming a woman, turns twelve, has her first period, makes an unexpected friend. I often have a problem with child narrators, but I certainly didn't have one with Clover, who just felt absolutely right. But sometimes the perspective shifts to Darren, who also is beautifully observed - a man with so many good qualities but unable to process his grief or to talk openly to Clover about her mother. His point of view is important, too, because it enables the reader to have inside knowledge about some of the things Clover finds in the room - we see her interpretation of their significance, but then have access to the real story through Darren's memories.
There's some humour here, often in the person of the elderly neighbour next door, but there's lots that is really touching and uplifting. Very glad I got a chance to read it!