“Please do not be angry with your life…nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered”.
-Anders, Meet Me at the Museum
Meet Me at the Museum was a very unexpected, however, rewarding read. I was drawn to it by the fact it was an epistolary novel and the title appeared to have an involvement with a museum. The subject matter caught me off guard and left me reflecting on a whole range of things, which I had recently not stopped to think about…about the human condition, its coping with grief, loss and its view of life.
Tina, an English farmer’s wife and Anders, a museum curator in Denmark are the protagonists of this tale. Tina writes a letter to seek information about Tollund Man, an Iron Age human who was found in a Danish bog in 1950. The letter was initially addressed to the archaeologist (now deceased) who made the discovery. Anders, the museum curator, replies to the letter. The correspondence is, at least initially, centred around anthropological discussions around the Tollund man. However, as the letters continue, we witness not only a mapping of the histories and personalities of these individuals, but also the friendship that they go on to share. Both soon begin to reflect, reminisce and share an aspect of each other’s life from academic passions of history and nature; glimpses into their personal lives as well as their sense of a world that is firmly in the past and anticipations of what lies in the future.
I have been struggling to connect my thoughts in a coherent manner as a response to this book. At face value, as a literary text, the novel is an exchange of letters between a housewife with a difficult marriage, and a European curator, who is embedded in a world of loneliness. However, through the narrative of Tina and Anders, Youngson effectively weaves a pattern of isolation, grief, and hope on a tapestry of time gone by.
Ander’s wife had complex psychological presentations, which influenced the outcomes of not only his, but the lives of their children. A vast majority of written and other media has a tendency to portray mental illness as a very palpable and overriding phenomenon. One often will witness it no more than archaic lunacy. Youngson, however, does not find it her job to explain this so clinically. She has resisted, rather well, the temptation to fixate on mental illness as the overriding feature of his wife’s memory. Instead, the author focused on the traditions, rituals and love they shared, thus stripping away the traditional dehumanisation of a psychiatric diagnosis, which we have become prone to seeing.
Anders has been a widower and Tina is stuck in a loveless marriage and yet both are plagued by an overriding sense of grief and loneliness. Anders grieves his wife whereas Tina grieves a marriage and a life she has missed out on. Anders has a more natural process to come to terms with, which is governed by the laws of nature. What resonated on some level was how Ander’s moved ahead in the world after the death of his wife – almost as if he had a dead space in the cavities of his heart. A space that does not hold what it once did yet does not allow any other entity to fill it. Yet this person has meaningful relationships, friendships…he laughs, he cries, he worries. He carries on living somehow, and beyond all, he has hope.
In the case of Tina, I could hear echoes of a conversation, which I had with Sister Nomagugu, after reading the literary works of the great Chimamanda Adichie, on the position of marriage in contemporary society. Youngson’s novel, and her treatment of Tina had stirred similar thought processes. Anthropologically I understand, (however, object ferociously to) marriages that have the backbone of conditions and compromise. Conditions of pregnancy, conditions of social acceptance, conditions of men and women reaching their biological expiry dates etc. It can be argued of marriage, that in a social sphere, as a construct and as an institution, it has disabled humans. An institution, which allows the state to give you certain rights and protections, purely for the fact you are married, is a flawed system. These processes affect women more so than men, especially in certain societies, where without marriage, specific protections are denied to you on a legal framework. On a social framework, we are informed that women are incomplete without the sanctity of marriage and a family. Semantics ostracise them as “spinsters”, whereas single men are “eligible bachelors”. As such, we have maximised the potential to use marriage as an oppressive tool embedded deeply within patriarchal roots and manifested in several ways.
In the fashion of Youngson’s novel, I shall not end on a deeply dark note as I can anticipate some of the outcries of the torchbearers of marital union and utopic unconditional love. My misgivings stem from social inequality that can arise from such contracts, as opposed to the vows and agreements of mutual respect and love.
And so, here ends…Huma-babble on a novel that was simple, sweet and managed to engage some neuronal activity.
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