Book Review: Trapped, in The Museum of Cathy

Sometimes there’s nothing more uncomfortable than being inside your own brain. The as-yet unreplicable machine up-top that runs on a diet of oxygen, adrenaline and nostalgia; that quite literally makes you feel alive whilst simultaneously fostering a feeling of internal entrapment.  Forever locked inside your own carefully and powerlessly curated thoughts. Or, you know, maybe that’s just me.  

But my own very obvious issues aside, this is why The Museum of Cathy, from Orange Prize-shortlistee Anna Stothard can occasionally make for uncomfortable reading as a raw, intricate look into a young woman’s beautiful, broken world.  At times the reader can feel like a human pinball, being fired through the erratic psyche of the three main characters, stuck in their innermost thoughts in desperate need of fresh air and a faster pace.

Cathy - an archetypally damaged human being due to a ‘feral’ childhood - is dealing with the two men in her life: her current boyfriend, the calm and caring Tom and her ex-master, the abusive and omnipresent Daniel with whom she shares an exceptionally sad back-story. “It isn’t always clear when you meet the people who will do you the most harm” Stothard notes, but throughout the tale we’re delivered such convincing perspectives from all three that moral judgement becomes impossible: a true masterclass  in the power of empathy.

Cathy is what would be referred to in the daytime documentary world as a ‘hoarder’. Alongside her full-time job in a Berlin museum, she has her very own museum of personal objects in her office: objects, trinkets, bones and boxes that represent seminal moments throughout her child and adult life. Each object tells a story of happiness, pain or both in equal measure that she can’t seem to be rid of. And this is the problem. Cathy clings to the past in the same way that many of us do. To past events and faded memories that with rose-tinted glasses or the lens of self-deceipt can seem like happier times.  

We fidget inside our reluctant heroine’s inner-most thoughts (or what occasionally feels like a teenage journal) as she tries to reconcile a violent past with a hopeful future.  Her relationship struggles with her ex Daniel are extremely relatable and very real: “He’d always had the knack of making her feel scared and safe simultaneously, as if he was both the enemy and the only person who could save her.”

The Museum of Cathy hurts, in a lovely way

If ever there was a fictional overview of the effects of human conditioning and argument for cognitive behavioural therapy then this book is probably it. The long-term psychological effects of destructive relationships are brought to life in this very slow, yet (deliberately) painful journey. Stothard is excellent at demonstrating the fragility of human relationships; interactions as delicate as the toy soldiers and bird eggs in Cathy’s personal Museum. As her current beau so eloquently puts it: “She makes me feel…dismantled… Completely. All the time. Like her hands, her tongue, her shyness and strength and humour, they’re either going to ruin everything in my life at some point, or be everything. She makes me impossibly happy and oddly scared.”

The book itself is very much a metaphor for the life of a modern man or woman, in the sense that not a great deal happens. In fact it reinforces the fact that life, as uneventful and predictable as it may be is filled with everyday tragedies that never leave you, despite an ongoing quest for closure.

The detail is exquisite: Stothard needs you to be there and will hammer you with description down to the last speck of dust until your eyes and mind can take no more. However, despite the meaningful and valuable exposure we get to the Museum of Cathy, and the wealth of symbolism -so much symbolism! - to test the EQ, we occasionally wander into rom-com territory which feels out of place in a story that is, for the most part, unsettlingly perceptive. The Museum of Cathy hurts, in a lovely way, but ultimately you’ll be glad when you get to leave, and I believe that was the author’s intention.

Amy Kean

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