The Museum of Things Left Behind
HarperCollins UK, HarperPress/4th Estate/The Friday Project
Pub Date: May 21 2015
“Please …. Visit …. Research …. Success …Duke of Edinburgh ..5 June ….for one month.’
When postmaster Remi decides ‘both for the sake of his career and for the sanctity of his country – to assume (a letter bearing the stamps of the Queen of Britain) was not just-a-letter but an official communique’ he cannot know that he has set in motion a set of events that will have a lasting effect on his small country of Vallerosa. Vallerosa is a picturesque country, situated between Austria, Italy, and France and surrounded by lush valleys and verdant mountains. It is a place some of its neighbours think of as a poor province of their own country and the others have not noticed its existence at all.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) is an English student arrives in the country, ready to do something worthy as part of her Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. As she later comments: “The British are brought up to believe that everywhere they go people they meet will be somehow inferior – financially, emotionally, culturally, religiously – and, as such in need of our help”. She is looking to volunteer to help in an orphanage or the hospital, only to find they don’t have the former and the later is already well staffed and maintained.
This is a country run by an elected dictatorship, with President, Sergio, a man who inherited the post from his father its leader. Other cabinet members have similarly come by their posts the same way. They have a procedure and a form for everything. It is a country where you need to make an appointment with an under-secretary to make an official appointment with that under-secretary to make an appointment with the secretary. A country where you need a meeting to decide on committee name for organising an official visit, and a committee for organising a spontaneous celebration ‘Do you think I’d leave something as important as this to chance?’, President Sergio states. And yet it seems a very benevolent dictatorship. Everyone in the country seems to know there place in society and they all seem to be happy and content with their lot.
On arrival Lizzie is surprised to find she is treated as if she were an important royal visitor, which she soon discovers she is, if only in error. She is soon persuaded to maintain the facade of being British Royalty to help save the face of the Government. Lizzie’s presence and unique position allows her to both cut through the red tape of bureaucracy and also entrance the ordinary populace of Vallerosa, whether it be giving the local bar owners and baker a purpose at last reminding them they’re I the service industry, or by figuring out how a dance can solve the problem of the broken clock.
She also noticed the government is full of men, all the local businesses and shops are run by men. Where, exactly, are all the women? Why is a man protesting against being given a free education? Why is the main town’s clock broken, and why has it not been fixed? Why is Sergio starting to get paranoid that a revolution is being planned; and why have the government – whose country’s current import and export levels are zero – been convinced by an American (Chuck Whylie ‘Access to credit is a human right’ ) to convert all their land, including gardens, to grow tea for exporting.
Seni Glaister’s book is a light but cleverly satirical tale of a country that has been self sufficient and content and has, as a result, held back the tide of global capitalism. It challenges the assumptions that to exist in the world you need to play by the World bank’s rules, despite the lack of logic for doing so. “It’s not fashionable on a global level, to simply sustain yourself”, Angelo, the President’s right hand man says at one point to his observation that ” If we’re not importing anything, and we’re going to sell everything we’ve got, and all we’ve got now is tea, what are our people actually going to live on?”
It makes you think. Like many south American, central American and African countries have found to their cost their governments often get in hock to the World Bank and others with ‘deals’ that involve them having to produce enough export crops – sugar, cocoa, bananas, coffee etc – to provide then with finance to import other goods. The result is taking countries that previously were often self sustaining ones for food and turning them into ones totally dependent on one crop and the wonder that is global capitalism. Even we in the UK fall foul of this – without being forced into one export crop. We currently could only produce around 60% of food needed to feed ourselves yearly.
It also questions what lengths you should go to to put your name on the map and encourage tourism, and one of the books funniest moments is a discussion when the ministers for Tourism and Recreation explain to Lizzie how they are two very, very different things, completely and utterly different, and certainly not things anyone could confuse.
The Book’s title comes from the country’s national museum – a collection of things left behind by visitors. Initially all Lizzie sees it as a like a lost property office, but to Vallerosa the items are more found than lost, as this “gives them back their purpose.” The Country’s soul seems in danger of being lost too, but with a little help from the women of Vallerosa the country can get its own purpose back.
I may be starting to make this all sound a bit too serious. When you cut to the chase, most of all, it’s huge fun. It’s sweet, heart-warming, and farcically funny. I had a smile on my face throughout. The workings of government were straight out of the Marx Bros, and Duck Soup with a little bit of Capt Spaulding in Animal Crackers thrown in for good measure. I was reminded on an exchange in that film between Groucho and Zeppo: “Put it in a box. Put it in a box and mark it, uh…”fragilly.” Mark it what? Mark it fragilly. F-R-A-G… Look it up, Jamison, it’s in the dictionary. Look under “fragile.” It’s a conversation that would not be out of place within Vallerosa’s government.
If you were going to look for faults you might point to fact that it’s a book populated with a cast of ridiculously nice people (evil capitalist American’s aside) but this is a minor niggle that doesn’t really spoil the enjoyment of your time in Vallerosa.
Glaister’s day job is CEO of TheBookPeople. On this evidence her day job should certainly be fiction writing. Add to my growing pile of impressive debut novels for 2015.
Review copy provided by HarperCollins UK, HarperPress/4th Estate/The Friday Project / Netgalley