Good to know that the epistolary novel is thriving even in the 21st-century! Tina Hopwood writes a speculative letter to the Tollund Man Museum in Silkeborg in Denmark recalling how, as a teenager, she and her friends were so enthusiastic about the well preserved discovery of an Iron Age sacrificial victim in a peat bog. The letter is answered by Anders Larsen, the current curator of the museum, and they begin a long correspondence during which many things happen and both their lives change. At the same time, they become more involved in one another’s lives moving from acquaintances, to friendship and, finally, to the possibility of becoming partners.
Tollund man is thought to have been sacrificed although the reasons why are speculative. This is significant because Tina and Anders have both made sacrifices. Tina is a farmer’s wife, hard-working, dedicated but also aware that she has somehow missed out on life in comparison to her flamboyant friend, Bella. She is married to the farm and to a husband, Edward, but in that order.
Anders has lived his life with the depressed Birgitt who finally succeeded in killing herself. He realises how his dedication to this and to the dry history of the museum has limited his horizons. Both of them also have what are, occasionally, needy children presenting with issues and dilemmas of various kinds.
What’s good about the book is the slow self-realisation which the letters bring for both Tina and Anders as they explore the past and the present while finding out more about one another. That’s interesting because Tina, in particular, is not an entirely reliable narrator, inclined to misjudge people and sometimes to make assumptions. She thinks she knows how the world works but is also conscious that she has lived too sheltered a life to be certain.
As they exchange letters, they become less formal in address and more inclined to talk about their feelings, something which they clearly find difficult in other contexts. The contexts in their daily lives are contrasted. Tina lives in a messy farmhouse while Anders’ apartment is more like something out of an upmarket IKEA catalogue but both feel an attachment to the meanings and emotions connected to small, not valuable, things. The Iron Age, Denmark and East Anglia are well described but when Tina goes, early in the morning, to visit Warham Iron Age Fort, driving through Thetford and Swaffham, she is heading almost due north and she will not need sunglasses or have to worry about whether she is the kind of person who owns some!
There’s a nod in the direction of technology when they agree that their letters can be sent as email attachments (still to be downloaded and savoured) but their growing intimacy is presented as accidental. Anders has no wife and it is only a string of convenient events involving Farmer Edward and the tarty widow, Daphne Trigg, which open the window for ultimate resolution!
The book’s weakness is also its strength. Presenting Tina authentically means that she is something of a ponderous writer and possibly there could be more distinctiveness in style between her letters and those of Anders but that is worth persevering for in the interests of the unfolding storyline and there’s no doubt that the reader does get drawn into the lives of both families.
By the end of the book, there is no impediment to the couple meeting and it seems likely that, in good time, they will but, probably wisely, that is left to the reader’s imagination!
(This book is to be published in May 2018. I received a review copy via NetGalley from the publishers, Penguin and Random House.)