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The Museum of Forgotten Memories

A Novel

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“Moving.” —Booklist (starred review)

At Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World, where the animals never age but time takes its toll, one woman must find the courage to overcome the greatest loss of her life.

Four years after her husband Richard’s death, Cate Morris is let go from her teaching job and unable to pay rent on the London flat she shares with her son, Leo. With nowhere else to turn, they pack up and venture to Richard’s ancestral Victorian museum in the small town of Crouch-on-Sea.

Despite growing pains and a grouchy caretaker, Cate begins to fall in love with the quirky taxidermy exhibits and sprawling grounds, and she makes it her mission to revive them. But threats from both inside and outside the museum derail her plans and send her spiraling into self-doubt.

As Cate becomes more invested in Hatters, she must finally confront the reality of Richard’s death—and the role she played in it—in order to reimagine her future. Perfect for fans of Katherine Center and Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Chapter One ONE
A house absorbs happiness; it blooms into the wallpaper, the wood of the window frames, the bricks: that’s how it becomes a home. The people in it are movable, exchangeable, one set of hugs and shouts and words of love easily swapped for another. I am packing up our lives into cardboard boxes, folding away that happiness, those memories. It makes me want to turn to someone, anyone, and talk about Leo’s paintings, old concert tickets of Richard’s, postcards sent to me by friends, but it’s just me—all alone with the shriek of the tape gun as it zips up the boxes.

Everything is changing: the school term ended yesterday—my last term as a teacher, at least in the job I’ve been in for more than twenty years. I am “redundant.” I don’t know yet how far into my life that word will stretch, how many parts it will cover. I am also—much more concerning as it involves my son every bit as much as it does me—homeless.

Leo has gone swimming with our neighbor and her daughter. The boxes and the Bubble Wrap have been making him feel unsettled. He’d be far worse if he’d seen the emails and the letters, but they’re my responsibility—and mine alone. There is a special anger that comes with impotence, with the basic failure to provide for your family. It is worse when that failure is caused by someone else, someone who had promised to be there and to help and to share the burden, someone who hasn’t upheld their side of that bargain.

Instead, I think, I’m supposed to be grateful that Richard’s family has offered us a place to go.

The offer is grudging. There have been letters backward and forward from solicitors. There have been emails of questions that are never answered, at least, not in any straightforward way—no promises, no reassurance. I have googled and searched, I have looked on maps and at old postcards, but there’s very little information to be found about Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World. There’s almost no mention of the village of Crouch-on-Sea, the postal address of the museum, but for a dot on the map right next to the sea. Today I finally get to speak to the old family retainer, who has looked after the place for years. I have to inform her that we’ll be joining her at the museum—or at least in the apartments above it—for the whole of this summer, until I find a new job and a new home for my son and me.

I’ve said I’ll ring at noon. Leo and I had a late breakfast—now that my schedule isn’t a daily drama of juggling school and home, trying to get us both out of the door on time, I can do that—so I’m not hungry yet. Instead, I’ve made a coffee and set it down on a packing box marked Dining Room, Unnecessary. Already I’ve forgotten what’s in that box or why I’ve kept it if it’s unnecessary. I found some biscuits at the back of a kitchen cupboard earlier; they’re out of date but unopened. I test one on my teeth and they’re fine, so I’ll have a couple with my coffee. That’ll see me through till teatime, when Leo gets home and I have to cook for both of us.

I arranged to call today because the landline will be disconnected at midnight and then I’ll only have my mobile. It’s strange that I won’t have the same number that I’ve put down on forms and contact sheets for the past ten years. As I understand it, I won’t have a number of my own at all apart from the mobile. It makes me feel unsettled. I’m not from the generation that exists solely through cell phones. What if I can’t get a signal?

I have no way of knowing whether there’s a signal in the house, or how isolated it is. Richard mostly refused to discuss his family home and I certainly can’t ask him now. He hated the place and so we’ve never even visited. He said it’s cold and drafty and miserable.

I’ve been curious over the years—and especially since Richard went—but one thing and another, and real life, and work and responsibility have conspired to keep me away. Almost every weekend for the past few years, I’ve intended to throw Leo into the car and go and look at this place, at Richard’s childhood and Leo’s inheritance, but it’s never worked out that way. In London, we have had too many friends to see, too many things to do, too many full and happy weekends. In my mind’s eye, in a sketch drawn from Richard’s very limited descriptions, it is Gothic and decrepit, overgrown and covered in clinging spidery ivy; dotted with gray panes of glass that stare like blind eyes onto rusted iron gates at the end of the drive. Where we live now, in the heart of a London that is steadily becoming gentrified, there are lots of strange old buildings—hospitals, schools, fire stations that have been converted into flats—and they’re all gorgeous. How bad can it be?

I sit on the sofa and take a sip of my coffee while the number I’ve dialed rings and rings. I bite the first half of one of the biscuits and the rhythmic tone at the end of the line continues. I dip the second half into my coffee, shake the drips over the cup, and eat the biscuit. Still no answer. I wonder if there is a limit to how long a phone line will ring and picture a tiny old lady, slightly confused and wearing pink slippers, scurrying through passageways to answer it.

I put most of the second biscuit into my mouth and bite through it. A crumb dislodges and goes the wrong way down my throat. By the time the phone is answered, my eyes are streaming and my voice sounds like something that runs on cogs.

“Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World.” The voice does not sound elderly, or like it might wear the slippers I’d imagined the old lady hobbling through the corridors in.

“Hello.” I clear my throat. Twice. “This is Cate Morris.”

“Cate Morris?”

This call has been booked, via communication with the solicitor. She knows I’m due to ring at noon, and it’s exactly that now. I grit my teeth. “Richard’s wife, Cate.”

“Richard Lyons-Morris?”

“We dropped the Lyons.” I say it quietly, as if I shouldn’t be saying it at all, as if she’s going to tell me off.

I’d known Richard for two years before I found out his surname was Lyons-Morris, not just plain old Morris. “I hate it,” he’d said. “Everyone says ‘lions,’ like the animal, and it’s ‘Lyon,’ like the city. I don’t bother with it.” We compromised by calling our son Leo—Leo Morris instead of Lyons-Morris. She doesn’t need to know this and I don’t tell her.

“That’s a great shame.” She sighs into the phone to make it clear that I’ve disappointed her already.

I make an effort to take back some ground. “Is this Ms. Buchan?”

“Yes.” She is utterly unapologetic.

“Ah, good. Only… you didn’t say.” As soon as I say it, I feel pathetic. My game of one-upmanship is obvious and crude. The biscuit crumbs start to tickle my throat again and I stifle a cough.

“We had arranged this call; therefore I assumed you would expect me to answer the telephone. I am, at present, the only person here.” She has taken the high ground and pauses in triumphant silence. “Do you need to call back later? Are you quite well?” Her voice is clipped and curt. She isn’t responding to my bout of coughing out of kindness—it’s just annoying her.

“I’m sorry,” I say when I can speak. “We seem to have got off on the wrong foot. Leo and I are very much looking forward to arriving at the museum tomorrow.”

“I’m sure,” she says. “And I wish I could say that we’ll put out a spectacular welcome for you…” She pauses, and I choose not to second-guess what she’s going to say next. It is clearly a sentence that hinges around “but.” “But…”

I roll my eyes, although there is no one in the room to see me. This is like dealing with a difficult pupil—or worse, a difficult pupil’s difficult parent. It always gets my back up. I wish people would say what they mean without resorting to excuses.

“I am almost the only person left here. Aside from a handful of volunteers in the house and garden, I am the last person working at Hatters. We are on our knees, I’m afraid.” She clears her throat. “As a museum, at any rate.”

“To be honest, Mrs. Buchan…”

“It’s ‘Miss,’?” she says, and her voice is sharp again.

“Sorry. To be honest, we’re not really anything to do with the museum. We’re merely making use of Leo’s right to reside in the house. Because of his father. Because of Richard.”

Sometimes I find it hard to say Richard’s name. Sometimes it chokes up my throat with such anger and blind injustice. Other times, it’s bare self-pity and loneliness that brings the same pointless tears to my eyes. This time it’s a mix of both: a frustrated longing to tell Richard what he’s putting us through, what he’s caused here in this boxed-up flat.

“That wasn’t what I meant, unfortunately. My point was rather that it’s the Museum Trust that keeps the entire building going. And that, I’m afraid, is at the point of collapse.”

The fear inside me is a physical pain—a stab of uncertainty. It is the pain caused by the barely stifled threat that has lived inside me every day for four years: the inability of a teacher to raise a family, without support, in the center of a big city that is being swallowed up day after day by investors. Our rent has stayed almost stationary for nine years, ever since we first came here, since a friend of a friend first took pity on Richard and me and let us move in without the usual credit checks or deposits. Now, the value of the flat has escalated to a point where our landlord is doing his own family a disservice by continuing to prop up mine. He has to sell—and we have to move.

“The trustees have agreed that we can live there for the foreseeable future. I have it in writing.”

“I’m sure that is so.” Her speech is punctuated by deliberate pauses; it makes it difficult to work up to any vehement response. “The trustees have granted you temporary residency—they have no choice but to do that—but they have neglected to inform you that they are also engaged in a committed campaign to close the whole museum and sell off the contents. Having you and Leo here will…” The pause again. I wonder if she is licking her lips. “Having you and Leo here will tip the delicate balance of managing on a shoestring over into complete liquidation.”

“I’m sure you can’t simply sell museums. It belongs to Richard’s great-grandfather and he’s dead.” There is an ache at the side of my temple and the first flashing lights of a migraine dance into the edge of my eye. “The family has rights.”

“They do.” This is the longest pause. “And you have the right to live here—with Leo—until such time as the museum closes, but it is not an exaggeration to suggest that that will be within the next six weeks.”

I have applied for twenty-five jobs since my redundancy was announced. Twenty-five teaching posts, all over London and even into the Home Counties, but I’ve been in the business for almost thirty years. My pay scale is much higher than someone just out of college, newly qualified, and, consequently, I’ve haven’t had a single interview.

I’m not about to start discussing the paralyzing terror of my financial situation, of four years of single parenthood and its consequences, with this cold old woman. I am shocked into saying my goodbyes and telling her that we’ll see her tomorrow. And then what?

The cardboard boxes, with their anonymous brown sides, tower around me, and the walls of the flat I have loved close in on me with a similar pressure: a low bitter wind starts to gust around the guttering glimmers of hope in mine and Leo’s future.

RICHARD AND I met at university. I was almost nineteen and halfway through my first year. He was twenty-four, a worldly and debonair PhD student, far more interesting than I was.

My boyfriend, Simon, was Richard’s best friend. Simon and I had been together only a few weeks. We’d been to a couple of gigs together, spent a few evenings in the pub down by my halls, and I liked him—I really did. Simon was tall, funny, and incredibly kind. I really thought that he and I would work, that we had potential. But then I met Richard.

The pub was hazy and dark. People still smoked indoors then and it gave everything an ethereal glow, at least until we smelled our hair and clothes in the morning. Simon and I were at a corner table. The jukebox was playing something old, country music from decades before: the pub was too London, too achingly cool, for pop music. We were deep in conversation, hands wrapped round our pint glasses, our feet touching under the table.

“Rich!” Simon half stood and shouted across the bar. “All right?”

The man he’d shouted to came over. I knew straightaway. I knew before he sat down, before he spoke. It was something utterly primal.

Richard had straight dark hair and the deepest brown eyes I’d ever seen. I see those same eyes every day now, and the same perfect white teeth in an enormous and constant smile. Leo’s hair is as poker straight, as charcoal black.

I remember moving my foot away from Simon’s, an unconscious gesture. I wasn’t that girl. I was young—new to this city, to being a grown-up. What I knew I was about to do was so out of character, so unlike me.

“Rich, this is Cate, my girlfriend.”

Rich put his hand out and shook mine. I looked into his eyes and knew that he felt exactly the same way.

I’ve always believed in honesty. There are a few unusual and unfortunate exceptions, but I’ve lived most of my life by the principle that it’s easier to tell the truth than lie—whatever the situation. I told Simon that night, as soon as we got in. I told him gently, and I told him long before Rich and I ever kissed, ever spoke about spending the rest of our lives together, about bringing another, much-wanted tiny human into the world.

Simon and Richard stayed best friends. They widened their closeness to include me, and Simon has been an amazing godfather to Leo, going far beyond the reach of duty, especially in the final, traumatic years with Richard, years I couldn’t have navigated without him.

All of that is four years behind us now. Simon is in New Zealand doing research. Leo and I are headed out into the Great Unknown, whatever that might bring.

I don’t know where Richard is. And that, more than anything, is the hardest part.

My thoughts of Richard are so complicated, so impossible to separate out from one another. I try not to be bitter—my mother used to say that bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die—and I try not to dwell between the twin despairs of “why me?” and “it’s not fair.” No one set out for any of this to happen: not me, not Richard, and most of all, not Leo. And Leo has to stay the most important thing. I’m strict about wallowing and I’m strict about remaining positive—but sometimes I struggle.

All through our marriage, Richard was my best friend, and an amazing father. He knocked himself out trying to provide for us, trying to make us the perfect family, but so much of the time, he just couldn’t make that work.

I was overwhelmed by the shuddering loneliness of living with someone with chronic depression. It’s hard to stay sympathetic and sad and angry all at the same time, torn between meeting the needs of both the people you love. I held my breath for so long trying not to let Richard’s illness affect Leo, trying not to let Leo’s day-to-day demands be too much of a strain on Richard. I once imagined there was nothing worse than being in charge all the time, the press-ganged pilot who navigated Richard’s anxieties and worries and got him back onto even ground.

But then Richard killed himself, and the sheer joy of being with him, the summer warmth of caring for someone, the human softness of his body—it all came flooding back. A spotlight of pain projected my loss in vivid relief, still does. I live with a Richard-sized hole in my life, almost a physical thing in the room we slept in; in the places we took Leo to; in the kitchen every day when I finish work. He isn’t here and I don’t know where he is.

All I know is how much I loved him.
This reading group guide for The Museum of Forgotten Memories includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Cate Morris thought she’d met her match in Simon at university—until she laid eyes on his best friend, Richard. Cate and Richard felt an immediate and undeniable spark, but Richard also felt the weight of the world more deeply than most.

Now, four years after Richard’s suicide, Cate is let go from her teaching job and can’t pay rent on the London flat she shares with her and Richard’s son, Leo. She packs the two of them up and ventures to Richard’s grandfather’s old Victorian museum, Hatters, in the small town of Crouch-on-Sea, where the dusty staff quarters await her. Despite growing pains and a grouchy caretaker, Cate falls in love with the quirky taxidermy exhibits and sprawling grounds, and she makes it her mission to revive them. When the museum is faced with closing because of a lack of visitors, Cate stages a grand reopening, but threats from both inside and outside the museum derail her plans and send her spiraling into self-doubt.

As Cate becomes more invested in Hatters, she must finally confront the reality of Richard’s death—and the role she played in it—in order to reimagine her future. Perfect for fans of Katherine Center’s How to Walk Away and Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Consider the book title, The Museum of Forgotten Memories. What “forgotten memories” do you think the title is referring to? Do you think the title refers to the people attached to the museum and the wider family, or the exhibits inside that have been removed from their original settings?

2. Cate reminisces about the first time she met—and fell in love—with Richard: “I knew straightaway. I knew before he sat down, before he spoke. . . . Rich put his hand out and shook mine. I looked into his eyes and knew that he felt exactly the same way” (page 8). Do you believe in love at first sight? How might it be different from love that takes time to develop? Discuss the different types of love and relationships in this novel.

3. When Cate and Leo arrive to the museum for the first time, Cate accidentally hits a fox running across the road with her car. What does this accidental loss symbolize or foreshadow within the context of the novel? How does it come full circle by the last chapter?

4. The first time Cate sees the museum’s collection, she is startled by how “barbaric” it is (page 49). Araminta, however, feels differently, explaining that the original goal of the museum was to bring animals and artifacts to people who otherwise would never see them. Do you think that Hugo’s goal, and his decision to create elaborate taxidermy exhibits, was just? What do you think modern conservationists would say about the museum? Can museums like this still be relevant today?

5. Curtis quickly becomes one of Leo’s best friends, in spite of their differences. What do you think draws Curtis and Leo together, and why does it take Cate so long to trust Curtis? Is it ever fair to judge someone by a first impression? Why or why not?

6. Consider the opening lines of the novel: “A house absorbs happiness; it blooms into the wallpaper, the wood of the window frames, the bricks: that’s how it becomes a home” (page 1). When Cate and Leo first come to the museum, it’s anything but; as Cate dryly remarks, their rooms are “like something you’d expect to find if you took an academic residency in the oldest university in the country, or the matron’s job at an expensive but ancient private school” (page 22). At what point in the novel does Hatters become a home to Cate and Leo? Was there a particular moment that finally made it so, or was it more gradual? Compare your thoughts with your book club members. You may be surprised by the answers!

7. Although Richard clearly suffered from mental illness, the author never specifies what his illness was, or how exactly he died. Why do you think she purposefully chose to make this vague? How would knowing Richard’s diagnosis or the manner of his death have changed your impression of the novel, if at all?

8. The Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes—and the statues of them in the Hatters garden—play a very important role in this novel. Do you think these mythological figures are symbolic of two characters in the book? If yes, who and why? If no, what else might they represent?

9. Cate blames herself and Simon, in part, for Richard’s death. Do you think this blame is fair? How has this incident affected her in terms of being able to move on with her life? Why else might her grief be so fresh, even four years after his death? Discuss with your book club.

10. Cate has romantic attachments to three men in this novel: Richard, Simon, and Patch. How are all of these relationships similar? How are they different?

11. Araminta blames Cate for the attack on the museum. Do you think that this is justified? How do you view this blame in light of the big secret that Araminta later shares? Why does Araminta feel so responsible to the museum and to Hugo, even after she’s been forced to keep secrets for all these years?

12. When Cate arrives back to the museum after the fire, she remarks in wonder, “Leo pulled me through that smoke. Leo saved my life” (page 198). In what other ways has Leo “saved” Cate?

13. The fire, despite the external damage it causes, is cleansing for Cate. Why do you think it—and the hallucinations she has about the animals and Richard—has “scorched away the paralyses; the immobility of grief . . . given me new life” (page 202)?

14. “I don’t miss Patch like I miss Simon. I can’t miss someone who never really existed, whose character was merely one more of his beautiful creations, a veil that he had created, painted with all the shades I thought I needed” (page 307). Was Patch’s betrayal a surprise to you? Do you think he ever really loved Cate? Why or why not?

15. A major theme of this novel is duty—Araminta’s duty to the museum; Cate’s duty to care for Leo; Hugo’s duty to protect his family’s secret. In what other ways is duty a theme of this novel? Have the characters carried out their duties by the novel’s end?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Hatters Museum of the Wide Wide World is a legacy of all the philanthropic work that Hugo Lyons-Morris did for Crouch-on-Sea, and as a result, the entire town comes together to help restore the museum after the protest and fire. Find a way to give back to your own community by visiting a local museum or historical society with your book club. While there, discuss the importance of such places. How do local museums and historical societies serve their communities? Why is it important to support and maintain them? What is their legacy, and what can you, as a community member, do to protect them?

2. Leo has Down syndrome, but he never lets that get in the way of allowing himself to make friends or live his life to the fullest. Consider volunteering for Best Buddies with your book club, an international organization that partners people of different abilities with each other to form meaningful friendships. Or sign up for a 5K or charity walk to raise money for such organizations. Discuss the value of friendships with those who might have different abilities from yours, or those who come from different backgrounds or cultures. How do those friendships help your personal growth, or help you to see the world from a different perspective? What’s one of the most surprising or valuable things you’ve learned from these friendships? Why is it important for us to have them? Discuss with your book club.

3. The ancient Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes has many alternative versions. Araminta’s favorite version is the one in which Aphrodite turns both Atalanta and Hippomenes into lions after Hippomenes forgets to thank her for helping him win Atalanta’s heart. This ending is a nod to the “Lyons-Morris” name. Have your book club members choose their own Greek myth that they’d like to rewrite. Consider changing a character’s name or the outcome of the story, to give it a more personal touch. Then have each book club member share both the original and rewritten myth with the entire group. How does the new version change the meaning of the myth? What is the benefit or value of family “myths” or stories? How do they shape future generations, or teach them about a family’s legacy?

4. Patch’s art class is a huge draw for the community. It connects Cate with Poppy, whose art is invaluable in the grand relaunch of the museum; it also allows Leo to meet his beloved Sophie. Art, just like museums, has the power to bring people together. To further bond with your book club, visit a local “paint and sip” studio, where you can all paint the same thing together while enjoying a glass of wine! Once your paintings are finished, compare them. How is it possible that depictions of the same thing can look so different? How is this a metaphor for experiences we might have, or memories we might share? In what ways can making art (while drinking wine!) bring us together? Exchange paintings with your book club members so everyone can have a little piece of the group to take home.

Stay updated on Anstey Harris’s latest projects. Visit her website at www.ansteyharris.com, follow her on Twitter @Anstey_Harris and Instagram @ansteyharris, and connect with her at Facebook.com/ansteyharris to learn about some of her other books and to find out what she’s working on next.
Copyright Anstey Harris

Anstey Harris teaches creative writing in Kent, England. Her short stories have been widely published in anthologies and online and she was the winner of the H.G. Wells Short Story Prize in 2015. Anstey lives in Kent, England, and is the mother of singer-songwriter Lucy Spraggan.

“Recommended for readers who like their relationship fiction on the literary side.”
Library Journal

“An eccentric museum in a neglected, stately English home becomes a heart-opening site of revelation, renewal, and second chances for a widow and her son… Enjoyably readable.” 
Kirkus

“An incredibly moving and atmospheric novel, as beautiful and complex and curious as the museum in which it is set.”
Beth O’Leary, internationally bestselling author of The Flatshare

“Family secrets, betrayals, and complications with love come together in a unique setting. Powerful and poignant, this book is guaranteed to transport you.”
Julia London, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

“A family’s peculiar museum becomes a surprising source of renewal and hope… Moving.” 
Booklist (starred review)

“Behind the facade of an imposing grand house and unique museum, Harris deftly explores grief’s tricky pull, the way depression can shrink a person and swallow them whole, and how those we lose are never gone. A healing tale about belonging and beginning again.” 
Marjan Kamali, author of The Stationery Shop

“One of my favorite books of 2020—I savored every word of this gorgeous novel. Harris proves, once again, that she is a storyteller extraordinaire. The Museum of Forgotten Memories is, quite simply, superb.”
Lori Nelson Spielman, internationally bestselling author of The Life List

“This beautifully written novel is not only absorbing and original, it will challenge preconceptions in the very best way.”
—Katie Fforde, internationally bestselling author 

“Riddled with secrets and lies, the love story shines like a beacon in the darkness and gripped me utterly.”
—Kate Furnivall, internationally bestselling author

“A perfectly crafted novel: beautifully written, insightful and tender – it’s simply stunning.” 
 —Fionnuala Kearney, internationally bestselling author of The Book of Love

“Such a beautifully written and engrossing novel.” 
Jacqueline Ward, author of Perfect Ten

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