Carys Bray has already upset me once, with A Song for Issy Bradley; that book, about a family who lose their youngest child to meningitis, broke my heart just the tiniest bit. Here, Bray does the same trick but in reverse; The Museum of You tells the story of twelve-year-old Clover, whose mother died several years before. The museum of the title is the one which Clover begins to put together in the spare room: a monument to memories of a mother who Clover herself cannot remember.
The main difference between this and Bray’s previous novel is that The Museum of You is surprisingly funny; although the main plotline is obviously tragic, the day-to-day lives of Clover, her father and their neighbour, Mrs Mackerel, contain plenty of moments to make you smile (or, in the case of the latter, chortle in a fashion which may wake up sleeping partners). Mrs Mackerel speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS HALF THE TIME because she can’t hear properly but is too proud to wear a hearing aid; I can’t explain why, but I find this way of emphasising words (see also: The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas) really amusing. Mrs Mackerel also possesses a fundamental inability to get well-known sayings right, which creates plenty of humour too. There’s also a very amusing subplot in which Darren, Clover’s father, tries to buy her a book about puberty but ends up with How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, which traumatised me as an adult so God knows the effect it would have on a pre-teen.
Obviously, beneath all this is genuine sadness, as Clover slowly unravels the mystery of what happened to her mother. Echoes of her lie all around the house, even beneath the wallpaper. As Clover gathers mementoes of her lost parent, inventing her own, often inaccurate narratives about books and t-shirts, the reader cannot help but be struck with the pathos that lies in the difference between the emotional stories she comes up with and the truth, revealed to us before Clover. The heartbreak of the whole story, from Darren holding on to Becky’s possessions so many years after her death, to his seemingly distant father and mentally ill brother-in-law, might make The Museum of You sound overwhelmingly sad, but, ultimately, I didn’t find this a depressing or in any way mawkish read; Bray tells the story of this extended, troubled but loving family in such a subtle, witty and authentic way that the overall effect is to produce something really quite lovely.