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Fiction set in Berlin, and talking location with author Anna Stothard

23rd January 2017

The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard, fiction set in Berlin.

Cathy has wound up in Berlin, with her fiancé Tom and they both work at Berlin’s Natural History Museum. She is a withholding kind of person, a personality trait that is clearly brought about by trauma in her past life. A feral childhood is described, and gradually, as the story moves on, her past life pays her a visit.

fiction set in berlin

The build up to an Awards Evening at the Museum is well underway, the red carpet is down, the protesters (not uncommon in Berlin) are out wearing molasses to simulate oil. It is an oil company who sponsors the evening, which raises the hackles of the young protesters.

Cathy has a loving relationship at the moment with Tom, but she was once in a relationship with Daniel, her first real boyfriend, whom she left because his abuse of her was escalating. Neither Cathy nor Daniel have really come to terms with the death of Jack, Daniel’s smaller brother, who died in the sea at Lee-on-Sea. Cathy copes by keeping a collection of memorabilia from the time spent with Jack. Daniel however has gone through difficult times and expresses his anger now by stalking Cathy. He sends her countless items every now and then which ensure she knows he is still in her orbit. Quite how close he will come to her is one of the suspenseful threads of the story.

The museum environment – with all its objects – forms a credible and substantial backdrop to much of the story. Interesting items pepper the text and shed light on Cathy’s history, and form a kind of museum of her life.

It has the feel of a crisp novella although it is 208 pages long. it is a complete story, written in very readable prose, and Berlin is certainly a fundamental part of the book. The Museum of Cathy is a classy read, especially so if you like Berlin.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

For our feature #TalkingLocationWith… Anna shares her Berlin

I wrote The Museum of Cathy’s first draft during a long hot summer living in Neukölln, in the south-east of Berlin. Just like Cathy’s home in the book, our building had a safari mural painted on the front and a devoted group of acid-addled punks drawing trippy chalk sketches on the pavement outside.

our-flat

At least once a week I would take the U-bahn to the Berlin Natural History Museum, where my fourth novel was developing around the memories of a young English curator pursued by demons from her unlovely childhood. Cathy is an expert in moths who collects autobiographical souvenirs that tell the story of her life, but over the course of a day in the museum her carefully constructed sense of identity begins to crumble.

birdskeletons-berlin-nhm

It’s a novel about memory, and how we acknowledge the past without getting lost in it. Berlin is obviously no stranger to this theme, and the collective memory of the city pervaded my thinking about the individual memory of a young woman with darkness in her past. Berlin’s streets, houses, maps and monuments all nod elegantly to history without losing forward momentum, and being confronted by this living museum at every turn was a huge inspiration for The Museum of Cathy.

While writing the book I could often be found haunting the corridors of bones and cabinets of moths in the Natural History Museum, but ideas from many other Berlin museums also coloured my thinking. So if you’re pottering around Berlin and want to go off the beaten museum path, here are a few alternative favourites:

Me Collectors Room in Mitte, is fantastic. It’s a bright contemporary art space with a stunning “Cabinet of Curiosities” in the rooms above the art gallery. Renaissance “Cabinets of Curiosity” were the original natural history museums, but with a focus on sheer wonder as much as science. The Collectors Room is an inspiration bomb of alligator bodies and “unicorn” horns, coral, scales and bone. I also liked writing in the café, which does an excellent cup of coffee.

The Surreal Museum of Industrial Objects is worth seeing. It’s so confusing from the outside that it took me ages to visit, and it’s hard to even describe the six rooms crammed with de-contextualized and formerly functional objects, all collected by an articulate and obsessive man named Vlad. It will make you look at objects in a whole new light though. Is it a slide projector, a child’s submarine, or a street lamp? Is it a gas mask for a Cyclopes, a box for a 15mm film camera or a giant hairdryer?

surreal-objects-2I also love The Berlin Medical Museum. Started by the pathologist Rudolf Virchow and only partially surviving the war, in this echoing top floor room you’ll find Siamese babies in glass jars, preserved ovaries and fallopian tubes spread out like pinned butterflies behind glass, deformed giant skulls and elephantitis feet floating in formaldehyde. It’s awful and beautiful.

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I don’t live in Berlin anymore, but miss it. It makes me smile to think that the characters in my book are still roaming the city, and that readers might dive into the book and be inspired to explore new museums or chat to the acid-addled punks drawing trippy chalk patterns on Neukölln pavements.

Thank you so much to Anna for sharing her insights and visitor suggestions for a unique experience. You can follow her on Twitter and via her website. You can buy her book here.

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