Tuesday 27 September 2016

Heartbreaking story that articulates power of loss

Fiction: The Museum of You, Carys Bray, Hutchinson, pbk, 368 pages, €16.99

Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30

Loss: Carys Bray's second novel deals deftly with a family's grief.
Loss: Carys Bray's second novel deals deftly with a family's grief.
The Museum of You by Carys Bray

When the teenage Darren was asked by a careers teacher to list the 10 things he wanted out of life, he didn't think to include happiness. Now, as the single father of 12-year-old Clover, every night he asks his daughter to tell him three things that have made her happy that day. It can be anything from clean sheets to the sun shining to eating her favourite pudding.

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Clover loves a baking programme and he loves nothing more than to watch it with her, sharing sweet treats, surrounded by everything she might want, everything he can think of at least - all the ingredients for a good life, everything she might need to be happy.

What Clover really wants though is answers, answers to the mystery surrounding her mother.

Darren and Clover have been on their own since she was just six weeks old when her mother Becky was killed after being struck by a car. Darren is still mired in grief at the loss.

The arrival of baby Clover was a shock, as Becky hadn't realised that she was pregnant. Clover had always assumed that she was the good kind of surprise, but lately she hasn't been so sure. Every time she asks her dad about her mum, his responses are reticent, careful and always the same.

This drip-feed of information only exacerbates her curiosity. She treasures every single crumb she gets from Darren and from their neighbour, the acerbic Mrs Mackerel, who had actually delivered her on the kitchen floor.

Clover has built up an image in her head of her mother, one that may not be entirely accurate. Clover thinks that Becky chose her name because the word 'love' was contained within it. She couldn't be more mistaken. Her mother's listless glance had, in fact, simply landed on a tub of Clover butter spread.

The spare bedroom in their house remains jam-packed with her mother's stuff, all the things that Darren can't bear to throw away. After a school trip to a local museum, Clover has a brainwave - she decides that she's going to use these possessions to create an exhibition of Becky's life.

She hopes that the pitiful, messy collection of oversized clothes, holiday brochures and a scuffed leather handbag will reveal the essence of her mother. But her wish to understand one parent stirs up painful memories for another.

Carys Bray's heartbreaking debut novel, 2014's A Song for Issy Bradley, was widely praised for its unflinching examination of grief, family and faith. It drew inspiration from the author's own experiences of growing up as a Mormon in Britain, her gradual move away from that religion and the shocking bereavement she suffered after the loss of her baby daughter.

With The Museum of You, Bray has produced a worthy successor. Although a slow burner - the writer almost too evocatively conveys the languid pace of the start of the long summer holidays - it is never less than enthralling.

Bray's depiction of Clover growing up in the shadow of her father's grief is beautifully and compassionately captured. The curious and open Clover is a delight and, in Darren, Bray has created a man believably wracked by loss but determined that his daughter won't suffer the same fate.

While the power of loss is movingly articulated, The Museum of You is ultimately optimistic in tone. Bray even provides some humorous moments, most notably from Mrs Mackerel and her many malapropisms.

Tender, compelling and beautifully written, with The Museum of You, Bray demonstrates yet again that she is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary fiction.

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