Imagine walking into a museum. A quiet murmur as people move between the glass display cases. A woman next to you gasps and clutches her hand to her heart. A friend puts an arm round her. It’s hard to tell which of the exhibits has moved her. The old passport? The pearl ring? The children’s shoes, barely worn? Yes, that’s it. As they move on, you take your place in front of the shoes. The label reads:
‘You promised you would watch her’.
Even though these are not your shoes and you have no idea who it refers to, the feelings that come over you are overwhelming. The resentment, the anger, but underneath, the agony of loss. It almost takes your breath away. You can see a school uniform hung on the wardrobe door. Shiny new shoes underneath, ready for the first day back at school tomorrow. You can see a mother running around organising school bags. Her daughter in a bubble bath, looking forward to being clean and tidy for the next morning. Dad watching tv. Mum needs to bring washing from the dryer in the garage. She asks if he’ll keep an eye on her. Dad promises he’ll watch her, but his phone rings. Distracted, he is drawn into conversation. He is still on the phone and Mum is in the garage, when their daughter shouts for a towel. She waits. Then, she stands and putting her arms out to steady her, she tries to get out. She slips, hits her head on the tap and unconscious, she slips under the water. You think of your daughter, your niece, your goddaughter. If this was her….
This is the power of The Museum of Broken Promises. Situated in Paris and run by Laure, the museum is slightly different in that all of its exhibits are donated by the owner and each one represents a different promise broken. The most innocuous object could represent a life utterly changed. Each contributor is interviewed personally by Laure and she makes the decision to exhibit or not. In amongst all the exhibits Laure secretly displays items from her past, including a Czechoslovakian train ticket. She is tight lipped about her past, even with those closest to her. Even her stylish clothes and her tiny apartment are unobtrusive and indistinctive. Nothing stands out or gives her away. However, two things seem to be encroaching on her anonymity. The first is a tiny feral cat she finds on the street and decides to help, accidentally naming her Kotchka. This is against all her rules about remaining unattached. The second is a persistent freelance journalist called May who wants to write a piece on the museum in the hope of selling it to Vanity Fair. Against her better judgement and to appease her staff, who think it would be good for the museum, she agrees to let the girl shadow her. Laure soon finds that May is ruthless, despite assurances to the contrary, as she starts to ask questions about Laure’s past. A past that Laure would rather remained buried.
The author uses two other narrative strands to tell us Laure’s story. The first is Prague in 1985. After the death of her father, Laure has taken a job as nanny to a family spending summer in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. She enjoys her work with the children, but has concerns about their mother Eva who has periods of depression. Their father, Petr, appreciates Laure’s work with the children, and occasionally goes out with them all for tea. He is a member of ‘the party’ and is possibly more important than he seems. It is only when Laure takes the children to a puppet show that her eyes start to be opened to the dangers of the country she’s living in. The marionettes act out stories far more political than she understands. When she visits the show by herself at night, she finds a rock band playing and sees Tomas for the first time. He is the lead singer and she feels a connection with him from the stage. The band are dangerously subversive with lyrics that speak of freedom and a right to choose. As Laure gets to know Tomas she soon realises she is walking a dangerous tightrope between worlds. Ten years later in Berlin, an older Petr is visiting the reunified city when he encounters Laure at a drinks party. Working as cultural attaché at the British Embassy, Laure is both repelled and drawn to her former employer. He may have answers to questions she has been holding inside for ten years, but does she truly want to know all that happened in Prague? Petr is drawn to Laure, but can he explain his actions in being part of the Communist regime and can he ever be forgiven for its abuses of power?
This is a powerful and moving story that I will be thinking about long after I’ve put it back on the shelf. The sense of each place is exquisite, especially the strange haunted quality of Prague. It is a city of ghosts, of people ‘disappeared’ by the regime and of hopes and dreams trodden underfoot. It is haunted by a girl in a beautiful black dress with pink flowers going to meet her lover on a summer’s evening. A girl who expects life to be simple and love to be enough. The same girl Petr finds beaten in a cell as the true brutality of the regime makes itself felt. I like the complexity of character’s motivations, such as in Petr’s chapters in Berlin where we see how his membership to the communist party cane about. His mother’s wish was for her son to be part of the communist ideal where each citizen is of equal value and wealth is shared. Her actions becomes understandable as a response to Fascism and her experience of seeing her mother beaten to death by Nazi soldiers. Her idea of communism is as naive as Laure’s idea of love. The author creates an uneasy sense of being watched across the whole novel. From the grey, ghostlike spies of Prague to the observant journalist May, who’ s so used to being a shadow, she appears to sink into the wall. Even Laure becomes accustomed to invisibility. She blends seamlessly into Paris, ever watchful and determined to never let anything breach her defences. Determined to never love another. Determined to never feel aching void of loss.
I believe this is the author’s best work to date. The historical detail anchors the story and made me think more about the context around global movements and political allegiances. I felt I learned a little more about what it would be like living and loving under oppressive regimes. It made me think about the promises we make in life, not just the big ‘official’ promises like our marriage vows but those small everyday promises we make and what happens when they go wrong. Sometimes the most insignificant promises we make to ourselves, our lovers, and our family can become life changing. That promise to watch the cake in the oven, when we’re not really listening and are distracted by the TV, results in a burnt cake and a smoke alarm beeping 99.9% of the time. But if you’re the 0.01% whose negligence results in the house burning down the result is life changing.
I loved the descriptions of exhibits in the museum and the stories behind them. I also grew attached to Laure, deeply affected by the losses she’s endured and desperately trying to keep control over her emotions. Yet, finding her defences breached by a small, scruffy cat. As an avid gatherer of ticket stubs, photos, drawings and handwritten letters I understand the power of an object to unlock memories and move us, especially where words are not enough. I understand how we use objects to contain our emotions where our bodies might allow them to overspill and become known. This novel is special, and just like the objects in Laure’s museum, it will be treasured as such.