Published by Corvus
Publication date – 2 April 2020
Source – review copy
Paris, today. The Museum of Broken Promises is a place of wonder and sadness, hope and loss. Every object in the museum has been donated – a cake tin, a wedding veil, a baby’s shoe. And each represent a moment of grief or terrible betrayal. The museum is a place where people come to speak to the ghosts of the past and, sometimes, to lay them to rest. Laure, the owner and curator, has also hidden artefacts from her own painful youth amongst the objects on display.
Prague, 1985. Recovering from the sudden death of her father, Laure flees to Prague. But life behind the Iron Curtain is a complex thing: drab and grey yet charged with danger. Laure cannot begin to comprehend the dark, political currents that run beneath the surface of this communist city. Until, that is, she meets a young dissident musician. Her love for him will have terrible and unforeseen consequences.
It is only years later, having created the museum, that Laure can finally face up to her past and celebrate the passionate love which has directed her life.
Laure spends her days surrounded by broken promises. In her little museum in the heart of Paris she curates a display of the various ways promises unkept, from a first tooth to an image of a destroyed garden. The museum is Laure’s broken promise, made many years ago in Prague. But it will also be the means of forgiving herself.
The story moves between modern day Paris, Prague in 1986 and Berlin in the 1990s. We first meet Laure in Paris, as she recalls finding the building that is the become the Museum of Broken Promises. We then flit back to Prague where a 20 year old Laure is looking after the children of pharmaceutical boss Petr and his wife Eva. When she meets Tomas, a dissident rock star the shades fall from her eyes and she begins to see Prague as it is for those who live there under communist rule.
It soon becomes clear that Laure’s broken promise was to Tomas. That broken promise has followed her through the years, haunting her marriage and leading her to live a half life. The Museum of Broken Promises is her way at redemption, and her way to ensure she still punishes herself.
Laure is a complex character but one the reader doesn’t know fully. She is naive when she lands in Prague, communism being just a vague idea in her native Yorkshire. And so it is something of a game to her at the beginning, seeing people being followed, sneaking to a marionette show where rebellious shows were put on under the guise of party propaganda.
I have no experience of life under a communist regime. I have no idea what it would have been like to be followed, to eat limited food when those high up in the party feasted. To be worried that your neighbour, your mother or your friend was informing on you. But the sense of permanent unease could be gathered from the narrative. It may have been assisted by the fact I read the book during the lock down required to help tackle Covid-19 but the visits to restaurants and walks in the park, accompanied by a goon as they may have been, felt even more stark for our current lack of such everyday events.
The majority of the other characters have a shadow over them, each with something to hide or so it would seem. Laure cannot really trust May, the reporter sent to write a story about the museum, though this is because neither are fully truthful with the other. Petr, Laure’s boss in Prague, has his own secrets to hide, and which Laure slowly discovers. As for Tomas and his friends, their need to keep secrets is in order to save their lives.
Running alongside the love story of Laure and Tomas there is the theme of regret and loss. Loss for ourselves or for loved ones. Loss of ideals and loss of belief. There is also a story of how recognising that loss, embracing it and letting it go can help set someone free.
About the author
Elizabeth Buchan was a fiction editor at Random House before leaving to write full time. Her novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily, international bestseller Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman and The New Mrs Clifton. She reviews for the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and has chaired the Betty Trask and Desmond Elliot literary prizes. She was a judge for the Whitbread First Novel Award and for the 2014 Costa Novel Award.