The Ash Museum by Rebecca Smith – a intergenerational story of memory, life and small objects

The Ash Museum by Rebecca Smith

Every family has the objects, bits and pieces that can bring alive generations past, bring back memories of those that maybe lost. In Rebecca Smith’s novel the Ash family is brought vividly to life in an imaginary museum of the seemingly inconsequential newspaper cuttings, tickets, photographs and so much more. Focusing on the life of Emmie, child of the 1970s with all its casual racism, and following her through various other phases of her life up until and including 2012, it also reveals the story of her grandfather, plantation manager in India, her father, child of an invisible family, and the family in Britain who waited and dealt with the unexpected. Told in a way that is deeply affecting yet retaining some humour, this book tackles different events and experiences from the existence of the everyday items that mark out lives, from chair backs to school jumpers, an old atlas, postcards and fragments of broken china. Subtly lives end, lives begin, and lives change forever, summed up in objects with brief museum labels. Despite the different time periods, the variety of experiences and the suggestions of objects from various countries and times, this book flows well and leaves the reader to pick up the hints of emotions, injustices and expectations. This is a beautifully written novel that quickly becomes absorbing as the reader highlights the essence of the small histories contained in objects of great familiarity. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

The book opens with a welcome to the Ash Museum, “telling the story of one hundred years of the Ash family”. It warns that it is not going to be chronological, but actually I think that it is one of the valuable elements of the books that it does move between decades, telling short or longer stories, illustrating glimpses of relatable life. A large section tells of Jay and his experiences with his small daughter Emmie, as a village fete highlights the assumptions of misconceptions attached to people who were different in the 1970s, painful hints of behaviour that amounts to racism. Emmie’s own experiences hints of a girl who stands out, deals with challenges, and enjoys friendship. Another section deals with James’ life in India, a generation before, when a young woman is taken from the tea fields to be an invisible wife, have children who are loved, struggle with a new lifestyle. Individuals are introduced, my favourite being the dependable Lucinda who resolves to make the best of new responsibilities with additions to her life.

This is such a well written and inviting book, which makes a virtue of different points of view, the little hints of life that convey so much. Emmie is a wonderful character, with decided views on her life, happy in the unexpected gift of a child, sensitive to the stories to be found in a family museum with few visitors, as well as the tiny objects that remind her of a previous generation. Her experiences of a childhood in the 1970s, when being a person of colour caused some fairly offensive behaviour is so well handled, with affection and an eye to so many subtexts. This is a lovely book which combines historical fiction with insights into more contemporary life, offering vivid insights into the lives of women, of family stories, and the impact of memories.