Review by Annabel, 12 December 2019
This short novel told in letters took me pleasantly by surprise. Within pages I was hooked, and I read it in one extended sitting, shedding a tear along the way as I followed the story of the developing friendship between two lonely middle-aged people.
Tina and Anders are separated by the North Sea, she in Norfolk, he in Denmark – but they are linked by their long interest in the Tollund Man, (which is real, more here) an iron age mummified body found in the peat in Jutland decades ago. They make their acquaintance by letter when Tina writes to the professor who wrote a book about the bog body at the museum where the body is housed, never expecting a reply. Anders is the curator who replies in the professor’s place.
Even from the start, Tina’s letters are an outpouring, ostensibly about why she’s reticent about visiting the museum, when she’s been obsessed with the Tolland Man since she was young. We’ll find out the source of that reluctance later, but there’s something in the letter that makes Anders reply with more than a polite answer to her query. Before long, they are writing proper letters to each other regularly, looking forward to every letter’s arrival. When he mentions that his wife is dead and his children who have rather grown away from him, she senses that it is time to press him on the subject after telling him about her own family. In his reply he says:
Do you wake terrified? I assume everyone does, at some time. My wife did, often, when she was alive, and I would wake to comfort her. She was never boring, my wife, never ordinary. When we talked about our fears and dreams, she made me feel in touch with what was otherwise just outside my reach. Now she is gone and I have no one else I can talk to about such things.
They grow in familiarity too – and seem to share each other’s wavelengths; something that seems to have gone, if it was ever there, from Tina’s relationship with her husband Edward, a farmer. Then something goes wrong, Tina stops writing, and it challenges their relationship, Anders despairs, and I can say no more.
You may quibble with the epistolary format. Some of their letters are really long with rambling stories from the two correspondent’s lives, they would be chapters told in the first person in a conventional narrative. However, there is something that feels right about these longform letters, especially as Anders and Tina grew up in the days before email. They do discuss why letter is better for them; they need to tell each other their stories, however long they may be. As friends who’ve never met, they come to trust each other’s points of view implicitly, and reading between the lines there’s so much unsaid too, as you will expect.
This is a gentle and moving novel, slightly slow burning at first, but I found it touching, heart-warming and uplifting. Youngson manages to steer well clear of sentimentality which would have spoiled things, instead producing a quiet story written in clean and unadorned prose. I particularly liked that the two protagonists were middle-aged, with lots of baggage, and in their loneliness, they felt really believable.
Amazingly, Anne Youngson is a debut author of a lovely book at the age of 70, and this novel was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize earlier this year. She is the former chair of the Writers in Prison network; that and this novel are both things to be applauded.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds.
Anne Youngson, Meet Me at the Museum (Black Swan, 2019). 978-1784163464, 240 pp, paperback.