The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan is a disjointed story of Cold War romance and its lingering after-effects decades later. Promises are made and broken, by everyone. The title is misleading, as the sections at the museum in present day in Paris act as bookends to the crucial story in Eighties story in Czechoslovakia.
It is 1985, Prague. After the death of her father, student Laure takes a job as an au pair in Paris moving to Prague with her employers. It is the Cold War and the once beautiful city is shabby and grey, an unsettling place to live where the threat of imprisonment or violence always lingers. Laure cares for two small children while their father Petr works, he is an official at a pharmaceuticals company and in a privileged position enabling him to bring a foreigner to work in the country, and their mother Eva is ill. Gradually Laure explores the streets and finds a marionette theatre. There she is enchanted by the folklore tales of the puppets; and she meets Tomas, lead singer in a rock band.
Resistance against the repressive regime in Czechoslovakia is low key, expressed through the arts. In this way, the book reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock and Roll which tells the story of rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. The Museum of Broken Promises is a story of a young student who falls in love with a bad boy who describes himself as a ‘rock soldier making war on the party’. But these words – soldier, war – are used in a student resistance sense, not actual war. This is quiet resistance rather than terrorism, but is none the weaker for this. Songs and marionettes can spread important messages of defiance, as Laure finds when she goes to a rock concert. Singing and dancing can be subversive. As someone says, it is ‘giving into forbidden yearning and loyalties. Tasting resistance like wine on the tongue’. Laure’s time in Prague echoes throughout her later life and leads her to open her museum in Paris, inviting mementoes from strangers, objects that represent broken promises.
The Museum of Broken Promises is a slow moving contemplative story, without the pace of a thriller despite its Cold War setting and the constant threat to anyone who speaks or behaves out of turn. This lack of propulsion makes it seem a longer book than it is and I wanted it to have some bite. The story moves back and forth from Prague to Paris and more than once I wasn’t sure where Laure was. This adds to the sense that nothing is what it seems.
Laure is an innocent who is sometimes stupidly naïve, unknowingly putting other people in danger. It is an example of the idealism and irreverence of youth ignoring advice. As she is warned on her arrival in Prague, don’t ask questions, don’t answer questions.
A difficult book to categorize.
BUY THE BOOK
If you like this, try:-
‘If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go’ by Judy Chicurel
‘The Bone Church’ by Victoria Dougherty
‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE MUSEUM OF BROKEN PROMISES by @elizabethbuchan #bookreview via @SandraDanby