What secrets are behind the scenes in our family stories? What might we discover about our own parents, or even ourselves, if we were to look beyond the images displayed to the public? Might we realize that the angry face is a mask to cover disappointments? Might we find that our own smiles and sunny attitudes are hiding tragedies we cannot allow ourselves to see?
Jenny has already read and reviewed all three of Kate Atkinson’s crime novels as well as Human Croquet here at Shelf Love, and I know many of our readers are Atkinson fans. She’s been on my list of authors to try for a while, and I finally got around to it when Catherine lent me her copy of Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, when I was on holiday in her area. I’m so glad she did because this book was a delight!
Ruby Lennox, the narrator of the book, takes her readers into the stories of the women in her family, sharing the secrets that made them who they became. The stories themselves are typical fodder for popular fiction: there are disappointments in love, limits on women’s roles, tragic deaths, epic historical events, and so on. If the story were told in a straightforward narrative style it would be slightly quirky, what with the family living above a pet shop, but mostly pedestrian. Good and worth reading, but not a book that would make me determined to read Atkinson’s entire backlist, something I am now eager to do.
It’s Ruby’s narrative voice that makes this book something special. She begins her tale while she is in her mother’s womb, immediately after her conception in 1951:
I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I was moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and didn’t let that put him off.
Even before she is born, Ruby muses about her mother’s thoughts and feelings with a wry, breezy voice that says the things we often think about ourselves and others but wouldn’t ever say out loud. As she grows up, she continues weaving her forebears’ stories in with the story of her own life. The stories of the past generally appear in chapters labeled “footnotes” that appear between the chapters about Ruby’s own life. The separation is not altogether neat and tidy, however, because the lives of the women in the past do intersect with Ruby’s life from time to time; the past is always with us, and that’s evident here. The footnote chapters expand upon ideas in the previous chapter and inform the narrative as it moves toward the future.
Ruby’s narrative style also grows along with her; as she grows up, she gains knowledge and insight into the past, including her own, that colors her account. But the change is not just in knowledge. By the end of the book, when Ruby is an adult, you don’t see the childish, self-centered glee of the early chapters. But the voice is still recognizably her own. Even as the story gets maudlin, Ruby’s storytelling style keeps it from getting at all soppy. It’s beautifully done without ever seeming constructed to impress. This book is a treasure, and I highly recommend it.