Relationships have been the stock story matter of books surely since time began. While the stories are instantly identifiable, the difficulty is finding something which is inventive but still rings true. Important Artifacts by Leanne Shapton - or to give it its full title Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including books, street fashion and jewellery - does exactly that and is, by turns, exciting, inspiring and utterly heart-breaking.
The reason for the cumbersome title is because the book is set out in the form of an auction house catalogue. Rather than works of art for sale, the items documented are the ephemera of a couple's relationship: letters, notes, clothes, books and other assorted oddities. The book starts with brief photographic entries on the couple, Lenore and Harold, and a snap of them at a Halloween party. Under the image is the description 'First known photograph of the couple together'. From there you slowly see Lenore and Harold falling in love - from dates, to notes of interest, to full blown declarations. This is all cleverly told, or implied, through postcards, book inscriptions and mix CDs. You note the couple passing milestones in their relationship through key items. A scrawled note indicates the first introduction to friends, ill-judged presents mark the meeting of the parents and duplicate novels indicate the combining of collections that comes with a move-in.
Shapton's skill is to create a real sense of the personalities of the couple through their belongings. The possessions also give a great sense of each of the characters. The possessions of Lenore, a food writer on the New York Times, include vintage tea towels and a scrapbook of recipes given to her by her mother. She also builds up a fully dimensional picture of the relationship. The couple's silly gifts and cards to each other are touching and inspiring - there's plenty of food for thoughts for romantics here - and it does make you want to document and cherish every small and ridiculous details of your relationship. Equally there are pointers throughout to the cracks in their relationship and the book accurately charts the painful highs and lows of being in an increasingly unhappy relationship, until it ends - and hence this sale of their belongings. The ending of their relationship is utterly believable, and also very sad. That said there's a certain suspension of disbelief required of the reader throughout - no couple I know would be so expressive in discussing their relationships, either in writing or in person - but maybe that's my Britishness speaking and I don't know enough American couples and, of course, real relationships never end with the finality of an auction. This is hinted at in the book as it is prefaced with a letter of regret from Hal, written a few years after the event. In real life, property is discarded or divided up, then appropriated into a new life and into new relationships. Our relationship with the objects and the feelings we attach to them also shifts over time.
Important Artifacts is an everyday story with everyday experiences and objects, that's beautifully told. Its message is sure to appeal to die hard accumulators and hoarders, as well as those in relationships - cherish the significance of the small stuff.