Elizabeth Buchan’s new novel, The Museum of Broken Promises, is a keenly observant exploration of secrets and loss set in 1980s Prague and Paris in the present day. Catherine Hokin finds it “complex and both haunting and haunted”, she tells Historia.
“So many things have been offered up in the museum, apart from the objects. Fragments of lives that have not gone according to plan which are presented in anger, in resignation, in despair but, sometimes, with relief and a lightening of spirit.”
A couple of years ago, I fell in love with The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan because of the novel’s ability to distil wide-reaching historical events – in this case World War Two and more specifically the traumatic last days of Berlin – into a deeply personal story. In her new novel, The Museum of Broken Promises, Buchan takes a similarly broad landscape – the dying days of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain – and pulls off the same feat in the powerful story of Laure Carlyle, the eponymous museum’s owner and curator.
In 1986, Laure, lost and vulnerable after the death of her father, follows the Czech family she has been nannying for in Paris to a Prague firmly held in the communist grip. Although Laure, with her French-cut dress and western attitudes, is too naïve to know it, she is a danger to everyone whose lives she overlaps. From Petr Kobes, the employer she has a shifting and often unsettling relationship with, to Tomas, the rebellious musician who becomes her lover.
In present day Paris, we meet an older Laure, her life now littered with its own broken promises. Linking these two dates is a story that shifts the reader not only between Paris and Prague but also 1990s Berlin. The changing locations and timespan depict both the halting fall of communism and Laure’s shift from a teenager innocent enough to find surveillance and rebellion exciting to a far more guarded adult “dogged by a sense of failure” for whom redemption was “a state of grace permanently shuffling away”.
This is a complex and both haunting and haunted novel. The objects brought to the Museum (the wedding veils, tickets and baby shoes) as well as the story’s places and relationships, carry the weight of the past within them, the ghosts they invoke are not easily put to rest. Items on view are not simply static things to be observed. They “appeared to exude a soul” and engender visceral reactions, provoking “a touchstone moment when a dam broke in a visitor.”
Most poignantly, although the Museum appears to promote reconciliation between past and present, the fact that the objects are regularly changed and donors are requested to leave an address where the items can be returned to, suggests a recognition that there is no closure to these stories and no end to the broken promises people make.
This is a novel that is not only, minutely, observant of people, it is also observant of place. Everyone is shaped by the environment they inhabit and struggling to establish an identity within that, often with terrible consequences.
Buchan’s Paris is a loved but not a romantic city. With its “topography of streets with their occasional sinister feel” it holds as many dark secrets in its stones as grey watchful Prague or Berlin where the East German regime has left its fingerprints everywhere like the DNA of “a murdered corpse”.
There is a darkness in this novel, as there should be. It is not, however, overdone. The use of a puppet theatre in Prague, where the marionettes have their own dissident stories, as a backdrop to Laure and Tomas’s love story provides a well-judged metaphor. Laure is not a passive character: she recognises her own part in the events that mark her and her earlier naivety is essential and believable: it is impossible for her as an outsider with freedoms she isn’t even aware of to understand what a watched life really means.
With this year being the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and next year marking the same for German Reunification, we can expect plenty of novels centring on aspects of the Cold War. (I have my own out next May, pardon the plug.) I think it will be a hard task to better this one and it will linger long after you read it. Now all I need is for someone to open the museum.
Catherine also writes short stories – she was the 2019 winner of the Flash 500 Short Story Competition and her stories have been published by iScot magazine, the Scottish Arts Club, Mslexia and Writers’ Forum – and blogs for The History Girls. Her two novels based in Berlin will be published by Bookouture, the first in January 2020.
Prague in 1980 by Alan Denney: via Flickr