The English exams are finally over so now I’ve got time to breathe again. It’s always a ridiculously busy time of year. I feel like I’ve blinked and missed May. I cannot believe it’s June. However, it’s so sunny and lovely that I just don’t mind. I spent the weekend with my family at Nostell Priory which was lovely (see photo above) and I also managed to read quite a beautiful book that I want to share with you all today.
This short little surprise took me little time to read because it was just that good. I think the cover is really lovely too.
What’s it all about?
The novel opens with a letter from Tina Hopgood to Professor Glob. Over fifty years ago, Professor Glob dedicated a book to Tina and thirteen other school friends, as well as his daughter, on The Bog People of Denmark. She is writing because she still hasn’t made it to see the Tollund Man homed by the Silkeborg Museum despite it being a plan for many years. Tina doesn’t expect any further replies to her letters. However, she uses her first two letters to try and get her head around her life, the choices she’s made and the events that have happened to shape her.
“…I am forced to consider what might be the real reasons, because you’re 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.”
We learn about the character of Bella and the impact she had on Tina’s life. From being friends since school, the girls had big plans, all of which are shared with the stranger Curator of the museum in which she is writing to. This dialogue is not one sided. Anders Larsen, the Curator also gains a great deal from the letters shared between them. He claims it makes him think about history and the world. Yet, as time progresses, their dialogue does change to be more personal.
“I end, as always, with an apology. This is not why you started this correspondence, to read my views on ideas too grand for me to express them as I would like to do, even if my English, like yours, was perfect.”
The tone changes as the letters become more personal, more entwined in the sharing of their own personal lives. Tina tells of her life on the farm, the daily routine, how her husband embodies the farm; he is at one with it. However, Tina feels like she sacrificed her life and what she wanted, even though she is happy. In Anders’s response, he discloses the story of how his wife, Birgitt, died. His hopes and dreams died that day too. He’s merely been breathing not living since then. He shares her last words, arguably quite a bold step to share this with a complete stranger. There is a feeling, quite early on that these letters will come to have significant meaning for the both of them.
“I never saw her again. Her body has never been found. She left my side as if all her life she had been dreaming and now she wanted to wake a new day.”
As they continue to share their lives: stories of their children, their work and their pleasures, we come to realise that there is a sense of ease between the two. You can feel the excitement that each letter brings them both. There’s also a sense of urgency as Anders suggest they email and attach their letters to share their thoughts immediately. What is quite endearing is the process they go through, the printing of each letter, keeping them all together. As a reader, you get the feeling that each are waiting for the others name to appear in their inbox. The biggest need for both though is for Tina to visit the museum to see the Tollund Man. The narration centres around this and isn’t forgotten.
“I am looking forward to standing beside you when you meet the Tollund Man for the first time. I hope it is soon, but I trust you to know when the time has come.”
As each divulge and share more about their own children, Anders shares the new of his daughter’s pregnancy. He wants Tina’s opinion on Karin’s decision to keep the baby but not tell the father. Anders wants to share his thoughts but something is holding him back. He needs advice and reassurance from Tina: the bond between the two ever strengthening. Likewise, Tina wanted to share her discussion of this topic with her daughter, Mary and her partner, Vassily. The split narrative of Tina and Anders means we learn more about their children as we hear their voices through their parents. Each personality is strong and shines through the letter form. Their children shape how they think; the attitudes they have.
“We should look inside ourselves for fulfilment. It is not fair to burden children or grandchildren with the obligation to make us whole. Our obligation is them is to make them safe and provide them with an education.”
Tina shares the news that life is changing on the farm too as Mary and Vassily are moving to their own place, meaning they are leaving and need replacing. To deal with this change, each focus on a room and describe it to one another. They each teach the other to look hard and see what’s really there. Anders’s job is to look at objects and catalogue. However, it appears difficult when people are involved; the objects mean more. Ander’s talks about the objects his wife collected, no knowing the context to most. However, they’ve been sat for the time his wife has been gone bringing him no joy. He shares with his children the want to getting rid of them. It’s a sign of moving on.
“Lastly Erik laid the nest of twigs on the water of the lake and we watched as the waves and the breeze played games with it, tossing it away from us then towards us as if inviting us to decide we did not really want to let it go.”
There’s further sense of life progressing and moving on towards the end as Tina wants to end their correspondence because she doesn’t want to spread her unhappiness to Anders, who finally seems more content within his own circumstances. However, he persuades her to continue to share and reveal what is deeply troubling her. She discovers her husband’s affair. Life as she knows it is now completely different again. She leaves to live in Bella’s old flat. The letters slow down but do not diminish. She also starts to feel guilty because of her involvement with Anders.
“When I first found out I reacted with outrage. I felt like an innocent woman, grossly deceived by those she had trusted, those she had served. But once I calmed down, I began to challenge my own innocent. Because of you.”
Like a true friend and confidant, Anders offers solutions in his reply. This letter is one of the largest in the novel and you can tell that there has been serious thought and consideration in the words chosen. Underneath all of the advice, he just wants her to be happy. The novel goes full circle as we return to Tina reading The Bog People. The big question: will she go and see the Tollund Man? The final letter is from Anders, repeating the words echoed through the collection of letters.
“I am waiting for you. I will wait, every day, between twelve o’clock and two o’clock in the cafe in the museum. I will be watching the door, waiting for you to arrive.”
This novel is beautiful in its purest sense. The letters change from formal, to friendly to compassionate. As you are reading you can feel the walls of each character gradually tumble. They each learn from one another, their families change because of the friendship also.
This book taught me a valuable lesson, or reminded me that everyone needs to feel love regardless of age. I’m desperate to know if Tina went to the museum. Yet, I fear the magic would be lost if we ever did find out. This ending means we can create our own ending for these characters. In my heart, I just want happiness for them both but maybe I’m just being optimistic. Maybe they never meet and the letters are all they have. Who knows. Regardless, it’s a really beautiful read.
Big love to all!