Halfway through her first year at university twenty-year-old Laure, feeling overcome with grief following the death of her father, breaks down and knows she needs to take a break her studies. Rather than encouraging her to return to the family home in York, her French mother packs her off to Paris, believing that her grief will make her more receptive to new experiences and promising that “my city will heal you”. Laure takes a job as an au pair with a Czech family, Eva and Petr Kobes, and their two children, but after just three weeks the family return to their home city of Prague and Laure is immediately thrust into a very different world from the civilised Paris she has known since childhood.

Life in an Iron Curtain country in 1986 is unlike anything she has ever experienced: drab and dismal, full of distrust and paranoia, political undercurrents which she doesn’t understand, and dangers which she therefore constantly underestimates. Whilst there she becomes involved with Tomas, a young dissident musician who, along with fellow dissidents, has links with a marionette theatre. Falling passionately in love with him, she has no real idea of the dangers she is exposing herself to and, consequently, possesses insufficient guile to protect either herself or him. Her association with him and his friends creates tensions between her and Petr who is, as she has gradually become aware, a committed party man. Whilst her employer does try to protect her when things go wrong, his motivations are less than straightforward, and she eventually has to escape from Prague without Tomas, but with the expectation that he will keep his promise and follow her a week later. He doesn’t arrive on the train she meets and the person who emerges instead either can’t, or won’t, tell her whether he is alive or dead.

Ten years later she is working as a “cultural attaché” at the British Embassy in Berlin, a city which is still struggling with reunification, a place where all the old paranoid suspicions and tensions between East and West are seldom far from the surface. Whilst there she meets up again with Petr, now CEO of a huge pharmaceutical firm, and puts pressure on him to tell her what happened to Tomas, whether he is dead or still alive. As they share their recollections of the past, there are recriminations on both sides but no firm answers, no forgiveness and no resolutions. Laure leaves Berlin and, with the help of an unknown benefactor, eventually establishes and curates the Museum of Broken Promises in Paris where, hidden amongst the displays, are artefacts which represent broken promises from her own unresolved past.

There were two reasons why I knew I wanted to read this book – the first because I know from past experience what a consummate story-teller Elizabeth Buchan is, and the other because the idea of a museum dedicated to artefacts which represent loss, grief and broken promises is such an appealing one. Objects in Laure’s museum have all been donated by members of the public, accompanied by an explanation of why they represent a broken promise or betrayal. If Laure agrees to put an item on display it is on the understanding that, as few exhibits are permanent, it will be on a temporary basis, after which it can either be removed or it will be destroyed. She believes that this offers people, either the donors or visitors to the museum, the opportunity to reflect on what the objects represent and to offer opportunities for catharsis and resolution. There were moments in the story when I felt very moved by the varied reasons for the donations and the descriptions of people’s reactions to the objects. These accounts of their pain and sadness, anger and resentment, as well as their discovery that it can be therapeutic to find an outlet for these feelings in order that the process of healing old wounds can be started, demonstrated the author’s empathetic understanding of the emotional distress caused by lies, betrayal and deception.

Stories which move between different time-frames can often be confusing but the author managed this in a way which not only felt coherent, but which allowed for a slow release of Laure’s backstory. The sections in Paris and Prague are told from her perspective, whilst the sections from Berlin are told from Petr’s and I found that this switch added an important perspective as Laure contemplated how her unresolved past experiences were still having such an impact on her life, especially her difficulties with close relationships. This process of reflection is partly driven by the arrival of May, a young American journalist who wants to write an article about the museum but becomes much more interested in getting behind the façade of the enigmatic, defensive Laure. Initially ultra-resistant to May’s insistent probing, Laure gradually becomes more open, finally experiencing for herself the catharsis of forgiveness, of herself and others, the acceptance that one’s views of a situation can change over time and the relief of reconciling old resentments and pain in ways which mean no longer being shackled to the past.

I became totally engaged with this story within the first few pages and when I finished it felt full of admiration for the ways in which the author, with her elegant prose, so effectively created entirely credible, three-dimensional characters, capturing their hopes and fears, their capacity for brutality, compassion and forgiveness, as well as their potential for embracing the challenge of change. She was equally impressive with her evocative descriptions of the three cities which were central to the story, and the various ways in which she managed to capture the horrors of what daily life was like in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Additionally, but without being able to go into any detail because I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, I loved her metaphorical use of the marionettes and their cultural history to form a continuous thread through this wonderful, haunting story.

On a final note, I’d like to include two quotes from a speech which Laure gives and which, for me, encapsulate something of why I found this such a thought-provoking read:

“Why a museum devoted to broken promises? Which one of us has not experienced a broken promise in our lives? Either we made it and broke it. Or, someone made one to us and failed to keep it. The consequences can be funny, tragic, fleeting or life-long. However small, however large, those broken promises matter.”

“Every culture must have its museums and a country without them is a country that either deliberately, or unwittingly, destroys its past. You could argue, therefore, that museums are as much political entities as cultural ones …”

Linda Hepworth 5/5

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan
Corvus 9781786495280 hbk Sep 2019