The bog people, and Tollund Man in particular, seem to have particular resonance at the moment. No sooner had I put down Sarah Moss’s excellent Ghost Wall, concerned with an experiential archaeological recreation of Iron Age sacrifice, than I picked up her earlier Cold Earth (also excellent) to discover that it too was about the bog people (bodies naturally mummified in a peat bog). Then along comes Anne Youngson’s Meet Me At The Museum which references, as all three books do, Seamus Heaney’s poems on the same subject.
Tollund Man clearly has a haunting quality which is not difficult to explain if you look at pictures of him. The 2,000-year-old perfectly preserved face is calm and tranquil despite the likelihood of his having been murdered, possibly in a ritual sacrifice.
It is a picture that Tina Hopgood has on her wall and looks at daily: “Every day I am reminded of his serenity , his dignity, his look of wisdom and resignation”. Her interest in him was piqued as a schoolgirl when 50 years previously she and her friends wrote to Prof Glob, author of The Bog People, and he replied, dedicating his book to them. Now in her 60s, “This business, of being no longer young, is occupying much of my mind these days and I am writing to you to see if you can help me make sense of some of the thoughts that occur to me.”
But Prof Glob is long dead, and she receives instead a formal reply from the curator of the Silkeborg Museum, where Tollund Man is housed.
From this somewhat unlikely opening, an exchange of letters develops, growing ever more personal in tone. Over its course we learn that Tina is a farmer’s wife, married at 20 and mother of three. Her life is fully occupied by the repetitive process of food production and the rhythms of nature. Her marriage is a functional one in which there is little love. Anders is recently widowed. He has his work, which he loves, and two grown children, one of whom bemuses him with her lifestyle choices.
From the formality of the opening exchange of letters, signed off as T. Hopgood (Mrs) and Regards, The Curator respectively, a warmth and intimacy develops. Essentially these are two lonely people at fairly late stages in their lives, reflecting on their choices and decisions and aware of options not embraced.
Author Anne Youngson herself warms my heart as that rare being in a publishing world seemingly dominated by young feisty women, a woman of mature years for whom the publication of this, her first novel, is a breakthrough. After a long career in the motor industry, latterly as chief engineer, defender replacement and most recently as managing director of Special Vehicle Operations, Youngson added an MA in Creative Writing to her English degree, retired and, at 70, found herself shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. She is living proof of her novel’s claim that it is never too late to change direction. What an inspiration!
Meet Me At The Museum is a quietly reflective book. Its protagonists are very different people who bond over their shared awareness that their lives are passing and that the choices they have made carry with them opportunity costs: That for every decision you make to do one thing, another option is denied. But above all, there are always options, things overlooked that you could have considered.
Recognising that truth, Tina develops the homely metaphor of picking raspberries: “Whenever I pick raspberries, I go as carefully as possible down the row, looking for every ripe fruit. But however careful I am, when I turn round to go back the other way, I find fruit I had not seen approaching the plants from the other direction.”
In the event, Tina and Anders’ discourse covers a wide variety of topics – the choice of archaeology as a career, pheasant shooting, turkey plucking, music, cooking, interior design to name a few – as well as being an exploration of their emotional states and prospects.
They also discuss their children and the decisions they make, including in one memorable sequence whether or not Anders’ daughter is within her rights to withhold the information that she is pregnant from the father of her child.
And in due course all of this is ramped up several notches by dramatic changes in Tina’s domestic arrangements that force her to re-evaluate her life completely.
Meet Me At The Museum is an unassuming, sensitive and intelligent book. It has a maturity in its balance and viewpoints that is attributable in part to the age of its author. It is not going to set the world on fire and I am not surprised that it did not actually win the Costa First Novel Award – but I am absolutely delighted that it was on the shortlist and under consideration.