If you can imagine the plot of Roman Holiday reversed, with the familial feuds of Jean de Florette and the character of Anne of Green Gables tackling the themes of Local Hero, then you may begin to appreciate what a true gem The Museum of Things Left Behind is.
The novel is set within the fictional land of Vallerosa: an idyllic Italian place that is small enough to pass unnoticed by the rest of the world, but large enough to merit its own President. The story starts when Vallerosa’s Postman makes an extraordinary discovery in his postbag: an aerogramme with stamps bearing the profile of Her Majesty the Queen. He pedals breathlessly all the way to Parliament Hall, battling through layers of officialdom so that he might hand such an important communication to the President himself. With great pride and excitement, the President instructs his people to make ‘planned but spontaneous’ preparations for a state visit from a VIP, and he is mortified when off the train steps Lizzie, a British, ruck-sack carrying student.
The scene is set for many comic misunderstandings, and I can’t tell you how many times I laughed whilst reading this delightful book. Seni Glaister has a wry, delicate touch as she describes the two bars in the piazza where the owners and clientele compete for the attention of their beautiful new visitor, and the depiction of public officials in the Parliament Hall are worthy of Yes Minister. But the author does not mock her characters: she describes their weaknesses and naivety with the tenderness of a mother, and bit by bit, challenges the Western notion of progress and development, the concept of power and the role of women in society. When Lizzie offers to do some charitable work – in an orphanage, perhaps – she is met with blank looks: if a child’s parents’ dies, then another family takes them in; if someone has no food, then their neighbour feeds them. There are times when Vellorosa sounds like a European version of the fictional Shangri-La.
But beneath the idyllic veneer, all is not well in Vellerosa. The President has been persuaded that they must engage with the international market by selling their distinctive tea for profit, and he fears that his own people may be turning against him. The arrival of Lizzie starts to change Vellerosa, just as Anne changes the community of Green Gables with her unflinching optimism, common sense and never-ending ideas. Watching Lizzie peel back the layers of Vellerosa and seeing her effect on the people she meets and their effect upon herself, is a genuine joy. My cheeks hurt from smiling by the time I finished the book, leaving me with the warmest of glows and a longing to visit Vallerosa.
I have said rather more about the plot of this book than I usually do in a review, because I am worried that this quiet little gem will get lost amongst some of the noisier hits this year. The blurb on the back of the book is vague, and were it not for the Curtis Brown Book Club, I doubt I would have picked this novel up; I might not have continued past the first chapter or two, which, until your ear tunes into the author’s skilful, gentle humour, can feel a little slow. But I urge you to buy this book, to settle into a deckchair and let the sun warm your skin whilst this book warms your heart.
Oh, and if there are any film makers out there, this would make a truly great film: a quirky, British/European mix of Il Postino and Local Hero, with an unforgettable female protagonist in a mythical land that we will all yearn for.