Aside

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

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I was hooked after reading the very first paragraph of Behind the Scenes at the Musuem, in the same way I was beguiled twenty-five years ago when I read the opening sentence of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers that famously reads:

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

This quote is intriguing enough but five lines later, a short passage narrated by the same person with the following words changed and enriched forevermore my dear (to me) career as a reader:

“I retired twelve years ago from the profession of novelist. Nevertheless you will be constrained to consider if you know my work at all and take the trouble now to reread that first sentence, that I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening.”

I suppose I should not be confusing things by inserting quotes from a book that has nothing to do with the one being reviewed by an author long dead except that both books have that illusive and magical element of an arresting opening.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins with microscopic Ruby Lennox announcing to the world “I exist!” She is microscopic because at this point she is only a fertilized egg having been conceived on the stroke of midnight.  A very precocious two-celled Ruby tells us that her mother, Bunty took no pleasure in procreation. She lay in bed, eyes closed pretending to sleep while Ruby’s father, George follows through on the process quite mechanically having consumed five pints of John Smith’s best bitter at the local pub in celebration of the start the New Year, 1951 in the historic town of York, northern England. The first page lays the groundwork for this novel with an innocent and ever optimistic Ruby trying to understand her place in the affections of a totally dysfunctional family. Bunty is a reluctant and disgruntled mother who married George after being left behind and forgotten by the love of her life an American G.I. from Kansas whom she met in York, during the Second World War. George is a pleasure driven disengaged father who falls into bed with any woman who beckons be it ever so slightly by the crook of her little finger. The family lives above a pet shop which George inherited from his father and that Bunty hates. Little Ruby explains hers is also a family where people are always dying. Very early on we learn she has two older sisters, Patricia, the serious one and Gillian, the prima donna.  Gillian at age eleven is accidentally killed one Christmas Eve by dancing into the path of an oncoming car. Not funny; but Ruby the little girl does not understand death and goes home with her grandmother to eat turkey and wonder who will get Gillian’s Christmas presents.

Ruby, inspired by innocence is always giving her parents the benefit of the doubt. However, she knows instinctively not to go out in the dark to collect her left behind teddy bear the night she catches a glimpse of her father in the back garden with his trousers down to his ankles on top of some unseen lady. Nor does she prejudge one of her father’s mistresses who looks after his little girls at a seaside resort while he is off on some unknown errand and undoubtedly up to no good. In the background the children are always aware of Bunt’s grumbling about one Floozy or another. Years later George dies of cardiac arrest in the midst of having a casual moment of enjoyment with a waitress at a family wedding. Ruby, old enough to be a bridesmaid, really doesn’t absorb the absurdity of the situation until much later. Soon after being widowed Bunty goes on to have her own disastrous affair.

Families and the people who make them up don’t get to be the way they are without a history and Ruby fills in the details of the two preceding generations of her family history in every second chapter that she labels as footnotes. In this way we get to know Bunty’s grandmother, Alice and her children and  Bunty’s mother and siblings. A myth had grown in the family folklore that great grandmother, Alice had died in childbirth but Ruby discovers she ran off with a travelling French photographer unable to endure abject poverty while rearing children in rural Yorkshire. Rachel, a maid of all work hired by Alice’s husband, Fred becomes his new wife and the children’s stepmother. This was not a love match, Fred describes Rachel as, “a reet workhorse lass.” in his Yorkshire accent. As for Rachel, she wanted, “a man of her own.”  By the time the First World War begins Fred has died in a foolish way and the family breaks up with the remaining few ending up in the city of York.

Ruby’s story and her family’s past is cleverly told in alternate chapters, interwoven with the history of Great Britain in the twentieth century. By the time Ruby is born in the 1950’s the two World Wars have touched everyone with the tragedy of human sacrifice… father, son, brother, husband boyfriend… so many killed. Ruby’s generation does not bear the same emotional scars as her mother’s and despite the cynicism and disappointment of the adults that surround her Ruby grows up curious, optimistic always innocently funny in her observations. In 1953 the extended Lennox family including the aunts uncles and cousins, is invited to the rooms over the petshop to view the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II through the medium of a very new piece of technologic magic: a television. Poor Bunty is torn, she loves showing off the family’s latest acquisition but hates having to entertain the hoards of relatives who come to enjoy her hospitality. The world is not the same world that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century. York is a city that goes back to the Romans and the little petshop with its family apartment on the top floor lies within the shadow of the Gothic, York Minister Cathedral so that the city is a sort of museum in itself and behind the scenes are the families, dysfunctional and otherwise that people its history.

By the time she is eighteen Ruby unearths from her memory a deeply buried secret from her childhood. You would have to be a very perceptive reader to divine in advance what that secret is but if you reread some of the chapters you will see there are hints planted here and there. I was taken by surprise. I think if you read the book as it is meant to be read one should be taken by surprise.

It is not just the structure of this narrative with it’s leaping back and forth in time that makes this book a good read, clearly it is Ruby’s wry humour that shines as she sorts out the exhibits in the family museum (just to take up the metaphor). She is never at a loss for words and out a child’s understanding comes an insinuated irony meant for adults. When Patricia ,in her last year at school, and by that time Ruby’s only sister, announces she is going to loose her virginity Ruby asks quite seriously if she would like some help finding it.

This is a thoroughly well written work of fiction. One little piece of advice I would offer is to make up an elementary family tree as you go along to record the three generations of Ruby’s family. I dislike interrupting the flow of the narrative to go back a chapter or so to check the accuracy of who’s who.   My final aside: I read this book several months ago and so to write this review I had to go back and do a quick browse to refresh this faulty memory of mine. I think it is the sign of a very good book that I was immediately possessed by the desire to set everything aside and reread Behind the Scenes at the Museum despite the length of my ever growing ‘to-read’ list.

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4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

  1. You’ve made me want to read this book all over again to restore my belief in Atkinson after the disappointing g Life After Life. Agree with you about that opening in Earthly Powers. I can remember reading it and being hooked even as I thought What the hell does this mean?

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    1. I know what you mean about that first sentence in Earthly Powers. I remember looking up the word ‘catamite’ in a paper bound dictionary (only option back then) and then thinking… “hmmmm not too savoury” but then it turned out to be a gross exaggeration.

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  2. Can you believe that I’ve never read Kate Atkinson? I really want to read Life after Life though, because everyone is giving it good reviews. This one sounds interesting too!

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