Amazingly, this is the first Anstey Harris novel I have read. I am now rushing back to read the others. This novel is magical, emotional and written with such sophistication and class. Cate and her son Leo are in a difficult situation. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, they are having to leave the home they can no longer afford to rent in London. As an emergency measure Cate has been granted permission to live in an apartment that’s part of her late husband’s ancestral home. The house is a museum with living quarters above, but it will be the first time Cate and Leo have ever been there. Due to a family disagreement between grandfather and grandson, Cate has never even visited Crouch-On-Sea or the museum that will be their home. Hugo, Leo’s great-grandfather, was an explorer and collector and in a way that would be totally unethical now, he brought back many species of animal to create incredible displays of the natural world. In a time when people couldn’t travel to far flung places, unless they were rich, he felt he was allowing them to know and understand the world better. In an odd piece of logic he felt he was preserving these varied species for the future.
We learn that Cate fell in love with Richard at first sight, and the instant connection was mutual. Cate was already going out with Richard’s best friend Simon and he had arranged to introduce them at a local pub. The connection was so strong that Cate explained to Simon straight away and he remained a loyal friend. The author very carefully places these reminiscences inbetween the here and now, so we follow Cate and Leo into their new lives, but continue to find out so much about what brought them there. Every now and again, the revelation makes us totally rethink the present. When the pair first arrive at the house and meet the faithful family retainer Araminta, she shows them to their rooms in the top of the house. The next morning she is there to show them the family kitchen downstairs. As the pair try not to break the priceless porcelain they must use, and Leo sneaks a second bowl of his sugary cereal, Cate relates to him in a way that makes me think he’s around ten years old. Then an extra chromosome is mentioned and I realised Leo is actually much older. This made me think about my own bias and how much we assume. As Cate remembers her pregnancy and Leo’s birth, it becomes clear that this was actually nineteen years ago. It also transpires that it is four years since Richard committed suicide after a long period of clinical depression. Before he died, in the Edwardian house that he and Cate renovated together, Simon and Cate fund hundreds of letters from banks and debt collection agencies. Richard owes hundreds of thousands and it is like this, on Christmas Eve, that Cate finds out they have lost the roof over their heads.
The book is a clever mix of these complex relationships and raw human emotions, with the fantastical and magical world of the museum. The author’s detailed and beautiful descriptions of the collections, particularly the animal galleries, are so vivid I can actually see them. By the end I started to imagine this was a real life place I might be able to visit. It reminded me of a visit to New Walk Museum in Leicester when I was six and an entrance hall full of stuffed animals so much bigger than me. The description of these displays had the same effect as I read them with the complete wonder of a child. There is also an incredible dream sequence that I had to read twice it was so beautifully done. The netsuke in the oriental gallery and the statues skating across the pond also have that magical feel. I love the slow unveiling of family secrets and the relationships that are being built, particularly between Araminta and Cate. The writing of Leo’s character is so sensitive and his development into a young man is shown to be as much about Cate starting to treat him this way, as it is about the new lease of life he gets from the museum. I loved reading about the friendships he forms, the art group and his relationship with Sophie, who is a wonderfully feisty creation.
We see Cate come alive again as she battles to relaunch and save the museum from imminent closure. There is even a touch of romance in the air as she meets a local artist, but this is mainly about Cate finding out who she is now. She’s deciding which parts to leave behind as experience and which to carry with her into the future. The most heartbreaking truths don’t come out till the very end, one of which I expected, but the other is a sucker punch moment. It is so profoundly sad and borne out of such a great love, it could never be lost. Cate comes to realise that there will never be another relationship like the one she had with Richard. They were soulmates and that is rare. For now she has family, friends and a new home and Richard is part of everything that surrounds her, exactly where he should be.
Thank to Simon and SchusterUk and NetGalley for the chance to read an I corrected proof of this novel.