By Anne Youngson
Flatiron Books, Kindle Edition, 2018I read about this book in an English newspaper. The journalist noted with surprise that this finalist in the 2018 Costa Book Awards was the debut novel of a 71-year-old grandmother. The story, the article said, was about two older people who find love through correspondence. True. But the book is so much more than that. Rarely have I savored reading a book as I did this one.
It starts with a note by sixty-something Tina Hopgood, whose best friend, Bella has just died. Bella and she were schoolgirls when they learned about the discovery of the Tollund Man in Denmark. This individual, two thousand years and more ago, had been ritually killed for reasons unknown and interred in a peat bog which preserved the body so perfectly it is as if one is looking at a living person, asleep. Tina writes to the professor who conducted the research on Tollund Man, saying that she and Bella had always wanted to come and see the mummy where he lies at a museum in Denmark. They had never found the time to do so. She writes, with candor and sadness, at this lost opportunity, and her letter is answered by the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen. Professor Glob has died, the curator says, but goes on to discuss what he knows of Tollund Man. So begins an extraordinary conversation conducted by letter and email.
The hook, The Tollund Man, tells us this is no ordinary epistolary love story. Weaving in and out of the story, this person who once lived so long ago reminds Tina and Anders that while humans have a short life span, the very fact of their existence gives meaning to those who come later. We are all part of a great stream of humanity, with hopes and dreams unfulfilled, with anxieties, fears, loves and complicated relationships with our families. What we leave behind matters deeply. As a curator of ancient objects, Anders feels that “the preservation of an object of beauty carries meaning…beyond the physical appearance, to those who look at it and handle it after those who first made it are gone.”
Tina, on the other hand, relates to Tollund Man’s sacrificial death. She feels she’s sacrificed her self to social convention. Yet, despite her despair, as the letters go on the reader sees her life as full of relationships and importance. As a farmer, her work provides food, essential for survival.
Ambivalence about accidental pregnancy is one theme that recurs throughout the book. What might have been is the corollary idea. The whole humbling notion that every human being is in fact a result of accident is something that older people find easier to grasp. We’ve already lost control of events, and the ego becomes less important. Simultaneously though, the miracle of life becomes more obvious. I found my mind spinning to ever larger thoughts as I read this book, such as the notion that life on earth is so precious, however it happened.
Through the letters, we see the day to day lives of both letter-writers, and Youngson does a masterful job of conjuring up places, especially small places like rooms, in her prose. The quality of the writing is extraordinary. And finally, the question of whether an emotional attachment between two people who have never met is actually an affair is left for the reader to ponder. Unlike the illiterate Tollund Man, people today have relationships across time and space unthinkable before the age of electronic communication. Are they any less real? Or does the ease of immediate communication inspire the transmission of untamed thoughts that perhaps should be, to use a word at the heart of the book, curated?
This book is an absolute gift. I just loved it.