Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award
“The charmer of the summer.”
“Warm-hearted, clear-minded, and unexpectedly spellbinding, Meet Me at the Museum is a novel to savor.”
Annie Barrows, co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
In Denmark, Professor Anders Larsen, an urbane man of facts, has lost his wife and his hopes for the future. On an isolated English farm, Tina Hopgood is trapped in a life she doesn’t remember choosing. Both believe their love stories are over.
Brought together by a shared fascination with the Tollund Man, subject of Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, they begin writing letters to one another. And from their vastly different worlds, they find they have more in common than they could have imagined. As they open up to one another about their lives, an unexpected friendship blooms. But then Tina’s letters stop coming, and Anders is thrown into despair. How far are they willing to go to write a new story for themselves?
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Dear young girls,
Home again from the deserts and oases of the Sheikdoms I find your enthusiastic letters on my desk. They have aroused in me the wish to tell you and many others who take an interest in our ancestors about these strange discoveries in Danish bogs. So I have written a "long letter" in the following pages for you, for my daughter Elsebeth, who is your age, and for all who wish to learn more about ancient times than they can gather from the learned treatises that exist on the subject. But I have all too little time, and it has taken me a long while to finish my letter. However, here it is. You have all grown older since and so perhaps are now all the better able to understand what I have written about these bog people of 2,000 years ago.
Yours sincerely, P. V. Glob (Professor) August 13th, 1964
An extract from the foreword to The Bog People, by P. V. Glob (Faber and Faber, 1969): Professor Glob responds to a group of schoolgirls who have written to him about recent archaeological discoveries. The Bog People is dedicated to these schoolgirls.
Bury St. Edmunds November 22
Dear Professor Glob,
Although we have never met, you dedicated a book to me once; to me, thirteen of my schoolmates, and your daughter. This was more than fifty years ago, when I was young. And now I am not. 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. Or maybe I am hoping that just writing will make sense of them, because I have little expectation that you will reply. For all I know, you may be dead.
One of these thoughts is about plans never fulfilled. You know what I mean — if you are still alive you must be a very old man by now and it must have occurred to you that what you thought would happen, when you were young, never did. For example, you might have promised yourself you would try a sport or a hobby or an art or a craft. And now you find you have lost the physical dexterity or stamina to take it up. There will be reasons why you never did, but none of them is good enough. None of them is the clincher. You cannot say: I planned to take up oil painting but I couldn't because I turned out to be allergic to a chemical in the paint. It is just that life goes on from day to day and that one moment never arrives. In my case, I promised myself I would travel to Denmark and visit the Tollund Man. And I have not. I know, from the book you dedicated to me, that only his head is preserved, not his beautiful hands and feet. But his face is enough. His face, as it appears on the cover of your book, is pinned up on my wall; I see it every day. Every day I am reminded of his serenity, his dignity, his look of wisdom and resignation. It is like the face of my grandmother, who was dear to me. I still live in East Anglia, and how far is it to the Silkeborg Museum? Six hundred miles as the crow flies? As far as Edinburgh and back. I have been to Edinburgh and back.
All this is not the point, though it is puzzling. What is wrong with me that I have not made the so small effort needed when the face of the Tollund Man is so central to my thoughts?
It is cold in East Anglia, windy cold, and I have knitted myself a balaclava to keep my neck and ears and head warm when I walk the dog. As I pass the mirror in the hall on the way out of the door, I notice myself in profile and I think how like my grandmother I have become. And, being like my grandmother, my face has become the face of the Tollund Man. The same hollowness of cheek, the same beakiness of nose. As if I have been preserved for two thousand years and am still continuing to be. Is it possible, do you think, that I belong, through whatever twisted threads, to the family of the Tollund Man? I'm not trying to make myself special in any way, you understand. There must be other people of the family, thousands of them. I see other people of my age, on buses, or walking their dogs, or waiting for their grandchildren to choose an ice cream from the van, who have the same contours to their faces, the same blend of peacefulness, humanity, and pain. There are far more who have none of these things, though. Whose faces are careless or undefined or pinched or foolish.
The truth is, I do want to be special. I want there to be significance in the connection made between you and me in 1964 and links back to the man buried in the bog two thousand years ago. I am not very coherent. Please do not bother to reply if you think I do not justify your time.
Yours Sincerely, T. Hopgood (Mrs.)
Silkeborg Museum Denmark December 10
Dear Mrs. Hopgood,
I refer to your letter addressed to Professor Glob. Professor Glob died in 1985. If he had still been alive, he would by now be over 100 years old, which is not impossible, but is unlikely.
I believe you are asking two questions in your letter:
i. Is there any reason why you should not visit the museum?
ii. Is there any possibility you are distantly related to the Tollund Man?
In answer to the first, I would encourage you to make the effort, which need not be very great, to visit us here. There are regular flights from Stansted, or, if you prefer, from Heathrow or Gatwick, to Aarhus airport, which is the most convenient for arriving in Silkeborg. The museum is open every day between 10 and 5. Here you can see the Elling Woman as well as the Tollund Man, and an exhibition that looks at all aspects of those who lived in the Iron Age; for instance, what they believed in, how they lived, how they mined and worked the mineral that gives the period its name. I must also correct something you said in your letter. Although only the head of the Tollund Man is preserved, the rest of the body has been recreated, so the figure you will see, if you visit us here, will look just as it did when it was recovered from the bog, including the hands and the feet.
In answer to your second question, the Center for GeoGenetics at our Naturhistorisk Museum is at the moment trying to extract some DNA from the Tollund Man's tissues, which would help us to understand his genetic links to the present-day population of Denmark. You will have read, in Professor Glob's book, that the index finger of the Tollund Man's right hand shows an ulnar loop pattern that is common to 68 percent of the Danish people, which gives us confidence that this study will find such links. Through the Vikings, who came later to Denmark but will have interbred with the existing population, there is most likely some commonality of genes to the population of the UK. So, I would say, it is quite possible that there is a family connection, however slight, between yourself and the Tollund Man.
I hope this information is helpful to you, and look forward to meeting you if you visit us here.
Regards, The Cura
Bury St. Edmunds January 6
Dear Mr. Curator,
It was generous of you to reply to my letter to Professor Glob, and to try to answer what you understood my questions to be. But they were not questions. The reason I have not visited has nothing to do with the problems of travel. I have passed my sixtieth birthday but am nonetheless quite fit. I could go tomorrow. There have been few times in my life when that has not been so. Leaving aside childbirth and a broken leg, I have always been physically able to climb onto a plane, or indeed a ferry, to Denmark.
This being the case, I am forced to consider what might be the real reasons, because your answer to an unasked question has made me want to be honest with myself. Please be aware, I am writing to you to make sense of myself. You do not need to concern yourself with any of this. I do not expect you to reply.
My best friend at school was called Bella. This was not her given name and is not the name in Professor Glob's dedication: it is a nickname, based on her ability to pronounce Italian words. She was rubbish at languages, as far as learning to use them to communicate was concerned, but she could act them beautifully. Her favorite word was bellissima. She was able to put a level of meaning into each syllable that varied according to the context, so the word seemed to mean more, when she said it, than it actually does. In fact, everything she said had more meaning, more intensity, than the same words used by anyone else.
We were friends from the first day we met, which was our first day at school. She was more colorful than I was; adventurous, alive in the moment. She brought me energy and confidence, and I loved her for it. What she loved about me, I think, was the steadiness. I was always there, always had a hand ready to hold hers. We were friends all our lives. All her life, for I am still alive, as you know, and she is not. And all our lives we talked about the time when we would visit the Tollund Man. We were, you see, always going to do it, but not yet. To begin with, we did not want to use up this treat before we had savored the looking forward to it. We were maybe, also, a little afraid that it would not be what we had hoped. We hoped it would be significant in some way — we could not have told you in what way — and there was a risk it would not be. Our school friends went, helter-skelter. As soon as The Bog People was published in translation, if not before. They came back with an even stronger sense of ownership of the Tollund Man and Professor Glob and all things Danish than they already had. Bella and I thought they were superficial and unworthy and that the experience they had had was trivial, in comparison to the experience we would have. One day.
Then, before it was quite the right time, we both made the mistake of getting married. I married the father of the child I was expecting and became bogged down, almost literally, in the life of a farmer's wife. I have had opportunities enough to ponder on the centuries the Tollund Man spent in the peat, following seams of different-colored silt on the cut edge of a dyke and wondering which of these I would choose as mattress and duvet for a long, long sleep. My life has been a buried one. Bella's mistake was quite different. She married an Italian. I sometimes think that if we hadn't given her the nickname, she would not have married him. He was a clever, manipulative man. I used to feel, after I had spent any time with him, as if I had been eating cream cakes and ice-skating both at once. He overwhelmed Bella. He wore her away, and when she was paper thin and empty, he went back to Italy with their child, with her child. It doesn't seem impossible, does it, for a woman to regain a daughter who has gone no farther than Milan? But it was. So many people became involved, pulling in different directions, each with a determination to win, one way or another. Every one of these agencies — the Catholic Church, the courts, the Social Services — was positive its view was the right one. I have never been that certain of anything, myself. After a decade the Italian factions won a final victory, and Bella went to live in Italy, too, to be near her daughter.
During the decade before she left, in the darkest times, one of us would suggest we go to Denmark, and the other would veto it. I would say: "If we just once saw the face of the Tollund Man, we might borrow some of his calmness."
She would say: "The point of the Tollund Man is the long view. Centuries passing. I can't take the long view."
Or she would say: "I can't stand this any longer. Let's go to Denmark. We might feel as we did when we were girls, full of hope."
I would say: "We're not girls, though, are we, and we need to see this through before we start letting ourselves look toward better times."
When the struggle was over and Bella went to Italy, I stayed at home, with the stock and the crops and my own children. We saw each other, of course, traveled back and forth, but the cares of middle life made us ordinary. We thought and worried and talked about all the things that seem important when the time ahead and the time behind are more or less in balance. Money, health, appearance, partners, children. We hardly mentioned the Tollund Man in this time, though I think we both understood that we still expected to visit him, and that we would both know when the right time had come.
When Bella came back from Italy, she fell ill. She was in and out of the hospital, undergoing this treatment and that treatment and always, always talking about when she got better. This time, we did plan. We did look up the ways to travel, calculated the cost, worked out an itinerary. It felt as if we were about to complete a circle, reaching out to the Tollund Man at the end of our lives as we had at the beginning. Holding out a hand to a hand preserved from the past, hoping to be part of a chain that in some way preserved us into the future.
She died before we could come to you. I don't know if I will be able to make the journey without her. I never planned to do that.
Sincerely, Tina Hopgood
Silkeborg January 20
Dear Mrs. Hopgood,
Thank you for your letter, and of course I realize my answers were not the answers you were looking for. My business is facts. I collect and catalog facts and artifacts, from which the facts are deduced, relating to the life and times of Iron Age man. My greatest pleasure in the work I do is to speculate on the facts we do not know, because time has eroded all evidence. But this is not, strictly, my job.
I am sure you will forgive me if I point out those parts of your letter that do not altogether agree with the facts as we know them. First, you speak of choosing strata in the layers of the soil in Suffolk (you use a striking image to describe this, which I would never have thought of myself) as a final resting place, like the Tollund Man's grave. I have researched the soil composition in your part of East Anglia and find it is principally chalky clay left behind by the last period of glaciation, with some lighter, sandy deposits associated with river valleys. Although your country still has peat bogs, I do not believe that any of them are close to where you live. The Tollund Man was found between two layers of peat, and I think you would be unlikely to locate such a bed for your final sleep on your husband's farm.
There were, of course, Iron Age settlements in your area of England. You might like to visit Warham Camp, a well-preserved earthwork, or Grimes Graves.
I am concerned not to upset you, as I see the death of your friend has been difficult, but I also need to correct any assumption you may have made about the Tollund Man "choosing" where his body was left and, eventually, found. The practice at this time, during the early Iron Age, around 600–300 B.C., was for bodies to be cremated. This was done with some ceremony, and we can assume that it was felt to confer honor on the dead and a safe passage into the next world. Once the body had been burnt, the bones were picked out of the ashes and placed in urns or wrapped in cloth and then buried, often with a small piece of metal — a brooch or an ornament — and it is these remains, in funeral mounds, that allow us to speak with confidence of the way the dead were treated.
The Tollund Man did not die a natural death, and he was, as we know, not cremated. He was buried in a place far from any habitation, in the middle of an area that had been recently exploited for fuel, something we can be sure was precious to the people among whom he lived. The average temperatures were 2–3°C below what they are today, and Denmark, even now, can have many nights at below 10°C in the winter. Fuel would also have been necessary to cook the vegetable grains into a porridge; we know this was the diet of the time from the contents of the stomachs of the peat bog bodies and other evidence. The men of that time were in awe of the bogs. They were places of mystery, not land, not water, but something in between, and the Tollund Man would not have seen such a place as somewhere peaceful to lie down for his final rest. This is all very dry and dull, I am sure, and I wish I had the skill to move at once, and more elegantly, to the point I am trying to make. The Tollund Man, I believe, was a sacrifice intended to please whatever power provided the peat.
Now, to the matter of your so-long-delayed visit. You mention your husband and children. If you do not wish to make the journey alone, could you not come with some member of your family? I have children myself — my wife, alas, is not with me anymore — and they will usually do something with me I do not care to do alone. They humor me, I think is the English expression. It would be a pleasure to me to show you the museum, if you could find a way of making the trip.
Regards, Anders Larsen, Curator(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Meet Me at the Museum"
Copyright © 2018 Anne Youngson.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Enjoyed this very much.
Always enjoy epistolary writing style. Also always want definite closure. Personal preference. Don’t leave to my imagination!
A lovely story that brings great depth and meaning to our lives, both historically and in our personal relationships.
Didn't want to see the story ending!
An epistolary novel that will resonate with many readers. It’s the story of two people entering their golden years. She a English farm wife and he a Danish museum curator. Their correspondence begins because of her fascination with the Tollund Man. An ancient man whose well preserved body was discovered in a Danish peat bog. Over the course of a year or so they correspond regularly always through letters. This is a gem of a little book. Its letters like poetry. They’re a reflective examination of lives lived and paths not taken. It will make you mourn the lost art of letter writing. It’s a thoughtful, poignant, wonderful love story and I highly recommend it.