When I saw Elizabeth Buchan’s name on the programme of my local literary festival last summer, I recalled reading her books back in the day. It was before I moved home to Cornwall and I read most of them from the library, but I remember buying a copy of one of them for my mother and her enjoying it.
Those books were stories set in the recent past, and I stopped reading when the stories became more contemporary and more domestic.
When I read the programme I saw that there was a new novel that looked more akin to the novels I had read years ago, and that looked rather interesting, so I invested in a ticket to the event.
I was captivated by the extracts from the book that the author read, and what she said about the arc of her career was instructive. It echoed the arc of her life: and so the books had different settings and time periods when she had the freedom to travel and to research, but stayed in the present and in domestic settings when she did not.
I loved the settings and the recent times that she explored in this novel.
The story opens in Paris in the present day, with Laure, who is the curator of a small museum that she founded. The Museum of Broken Promises displays artefacts that speak of love, loss and betrayal. You might question the viability of such a museum, but the account of the exhibits themselves, and of how they were selected from the many submissions, was absolutely fascinating.
Little was known of Laure herself. She was happy living alone, she was reluctant to speak of herself, and she only really socialised when it was necessary for her museum. On those occasions she spoke so articulately that you could understand why The Museum of Broken Promises had succeeded and what made it so important.
It was natural though that potential investors and other friends were eager to know more about the woman who had created it. An eager young journalist wanted to write about the creation of the museum, Laure was persuaded to allow the girl to shadow her for a while, and she was taken aback at how much she had found out about her past
All that she had allowed to be seen was an anonymous exhibit in her museum: a framed ticket for a train from Czechoslovakia to Austria.
Laure first came to Paris in 1985, to work as an au pair. Not long after her arrival, her employers moved to Prague. The father of the family, who was a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company had been posted there. It was a time of unrest and change in what was still a communist city, and nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she would experience there.
She visited a marionette theatre with her two young charges. They were captivated by what happened there – (as was I – it was from this part of the story that I head the author read) – and it was there that Laure met a number of performers, and that she began to fell in love with Tomas, a musician and political activist.
The love affair that grew from that drew her into dissident circles, She would become aware that they were watched by shadowy figures, and that the. Her employers were concerned, and she came to realise that there were more reasons that a job in the pharmaceutical industry for their move into the communist bloc.
Elizabeth Buchan wrote about young love quite beautifully, she told of Laure’s experiences with empathy and understanding, and the time and place were so well drawn. I could see that this novel was underpinned by reseach but that never intruded on the human story and it helped to make that story feel both distinctive and utterly real.
I understood how what happened to Laure in Prague shaped her, and how she became the woman who would create The Museum of Broken Promises.
The story moved quite naturally between the present and the past, and I found the writing in both time periods elegant, evocative and engaging.
There were some scenes set in Berlin not long after the wall fell, and I felt that they was less successful. I understood why they were necessary to the plot, I appreciated that they helped to illuminate the changes that happened in Europe between the two main time periods, but they were less engaging and less interesting than the scenes set earlier and later.
That was disappointing, but the book as a whole worked for me.
It held a distinctive story and it gave me much to think about.