Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2019

The Museum of Broken Promises (2019), by Elizabeth Buchan

I won’t spend much time on this review: The Museum of Broken Promises was a disappointment, and I spent more time reading it than I should have, given that I have other more enticing titles beckoning from the TBR.

This ‘cold war’ novel is what it is, commercial fiction, edited to a budget not to a standard, and it shows.  Apart from the messy plot, the weak characterisation and shallow grasp of the complexities of Cold War history, there are elements of it that are absurd.  A woman who has been tortured herself by the Czech security services, seeks reassurance that her lover wasn’t given the same treatment or worse?  Really?? Is she still really that naïve?? And a man who knows about a rape, is relieved to see that the victim’s ‘sweetness and trust’ hasn’t been beaten out of her.  Really??  That’s a male fantasy, if ever I heard one…

There are little irritations too.  What is the point of going out of the way to describe in one scene a character’s dress as badly cut, when much has been made of her acquisition of Parisienne elegance after many years living there?  In another scene, this same woman wears a French beret pulled down over her ears. (You can watch a tedious video here if you want to know how to wear a beret properly.)

I was dismayed by the jaunty tone in describing the work of the ‘puzzle’ women in post-Soviet Germany:

During the last days of the GDR, the Stasi tried to destroy their mountains of files and paperwork recording the decades of surveillance.  The joke ran that for the most efficient surveillance system in the world, they hadn’t been very efficient.  Left behind was a paper mountain, from which rose (as Petr well knew) a miasma of spite, vengeance and oppression.

In the new democratic dawn, these had to be investigated and teams of ‘Puzzle Women’ patrolled long tables on which were arranged thousands and thousands of paper fragments from which they were bidden to construct a new story of Germany from the old ones. (p.199)

Notice anything?  This novel is mainly set in Prague — in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet years, now the Czech Republic.  Its bad guys are from the StB, the plainclothes communist secret police who conducted surveillance on its citizens and worse.  But this snippet, sourced from Anna Funder’s Stasiland (which the author says in the Afterword that she has read) brings in the Stasi in the GDR.  (Well, if you’ve got a useful snippet from your research, shove in a scene in Berlin so that you can use it, eh?) But it’s the scale and purpose ascribed to this mammoth task that caused my dismay.  It’s so disrespectful and insensitive.  Salvaging these shredded Stasi records is not about ‘constructing a new story’ and it’s not about ‘thousands and thousands’ of fragments: it’s about hundreds of millions of fragments and it’s about reconstructing the records of people who ‘disappeared’ under the Soviet regime, and no trace of them has been found.  Their families yearn to know what happened to them; it’s a matter of justice and accountability.

Funder, whose book comprises a series of interviews with citizens who lived through the Stasi years, focusses her poignant chapter on the hopes of a woman called Miriam. This is how she writes about this project, with compassion and sensitivity, and it’s testament to her powerful writing that the details of it are seared into my memory:

I am as nervous as a cat.  I am in an unaccountable hurry.  I have been thinking about this place for so long as the focus of Miriam’s hopes; I want there to be stainless steel benches and people wearing hair nets and white cloth gloves. I want security guards on the entrances and cameras in the workrooms.  I want the completed puzzle pages to be scanned into computers, correlated to the files they belong to and for the people they affect to be called up by sensitive, trained personnel and informed about the new links in their lives.

I want them to find out what happened to Charlie Weber. (Stasiland, by Anna Funder, Text Publishing, 2002, p263)

You can see that Funder is worried that the project could be sabotaged by ex-Stasi people looking to destroy evidence, her previous chapters having established that there are still unrepentant Stasi at liberty.  But she is aghast when she sees the enormity of the task being undertaken.   The work of the team piecing together the 15,000 sacks full of an estimated 600 million shredded documents isn’t a case of ‘patrolling’ tables; it’s meticulous, painstaking work in the service of the only recompense there can be: an end to the torture of soul-destroying uncertainty. (You can see how it’s done in this report about the potential use of new technology.

The irony of the title seems to have been lost on the author.  The most cruelly broken promise of the Cold War era wasn’t among the detritus of interpersonal relationships in Laure’s museum, but rather that repressive regimes from one end of the Soviet Union to the other, betrayed the promise of a better life for their people.

Enough already.  I have better things to do…

Author: Elizabeth Buchan
Title: The Museum of Broken Promises
Publisher: Corvus (a division of Atlantic Books), 2019, 410 pages
ISBN: 9781786495303
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin




  1. Oh dear…
    About 100 pages in now.


    • It’s long too!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is. I’m a bit put off though now, particularly about those points you made about the accuracy, etc. I’ll press on though. My last read was a dnf, I don’t want to go crazy and have two of those in a row!


        • And I wouldn’t want to put you off either.
          I mean, I could have made it a DNF, and didn’t, which says something for it.
          It’s a shame, it’s a book with good potential. It just needs tidying up, getting rid of some of the unnecessary distractions, and a bit of sensitivity with the material.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. You sound about this book rather like I was about Room for a Stranger! Thanks for the review I’ll be sure to avoid this one… I’ve reached the age where I simply don’t have the time to waste on books that I don’t enjoy!

    Being new here and this is possibly a silly question but what is a DNF? – Do Not.. I’m not sure what the F stands for.


    • HI Sue, I’m sorry, I do go overboard with the acronyms sometimes…
      It means Did Not Finish, not necessarily with a pejorative nuance, it might be because it was due back at the library or something like that. ‘Abandoned’ OTOH (On The Other Hand) means you gave up on it because it was too hard or boring or you just didn’t like it.


      • Thanks for that enlightenment Lisa! I have had several DNFs recently – I suspect it’s an age thing – I am rarely prepared to waste time on a book that I think isn’t worth reading any more…

        Away from Australian and New Zealand fiction for a moment, have you read anything by Mary Lawson (Canadian) – Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, Roads End. Definitely worth a look if you enjoy family sagas – she started writing novels quite late in life, her second book got a Booker nomination.


        • Yes, I’m not as patient with dross as I used to be. It’s that sense that you’ve only got so many reading years left and we shouldn’t waste them.
          I think of them as reading years. If I can’t, for any reason, read, that’s it, I won’t be mouldering around waiting to die!


  3. One for the remaindered bin – or just the bin. Same with Dead Man Switch by Tara Moss, riddled with a quasi-Nazi, below par version of post-war Australia.


    • I don’t think I’ve ever read Tara Moss. Do you usually enjoy her books?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have read books from her earlier Makedde Vanderwall crime series and thought they were rather immature and it would appear she hasn’t changed.


  4. Enough indeed! Thanks for the warning…. ;D


    • I think that as a general guide, it’s much better to read novelists from those former Soviet states, they have lived it themselves, or they have friends and families who have, so their stories have an authenticity that’s hard to match.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Stasiland was brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I bought it this week and I think I’m going to make it a reading priority.


      • I think it’s essential reading: it personalises the dehumanising effects of the surveillance that went on in the GDR. It’s 15 years since I first read it, and yet I still remember the chill down my spine when she interviewed the unrepentant Stasi.
        Also, if you can get hold of it, try to see The Lives of Others, it’s a brilliant film about surveillance from 2006, and another good one is a tragi-comedy called Goodbye Lenin (2003),_Lenin! Also The Weissensee Saga, a German TV series, which is a series covering the transitional period from before the fall of the wall to reunification.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your honest review rant. I’ve had a few “review rants” but haven’t bothered writing them up. 🐧🤠


    • Well, we all come to book reviewing from different places. Sue took part in a festival panel this week about ‘constructive reviewing’ and in her post about it covered some of the different perspectives.

      My approach is to put the reader first. I like to support the Australian book industry, and I write as many reviews as I can, and I do my best to be fair as well as honest. But at the end of the day we readers are shelling out hard-earned money for a book, and we’re investing our precious leisure time in it too. So I let them know what I think…and why.

      It’s only my opinion, and others who don’t agree can come here and say so and put their PoV, which is more than you can do with a print review in a newspaper or journal!


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