Behind the Scenes at the Museum

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.

See other reviews at Eve’s Alexandria and A Life in Books.

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15 Responses to Behind the Scenes at the Museum

  1. Nymeth says:

    Thank you for reminding me of why I’ve been meaning to read Kate Atkinson. I have Case Histories on my tbr pile and will be moving it up the priority queue.

  2. Jenny says:

    Oo, very Tristram-Shandy-esque conception scene. I like it! :) Hopefully Case Histories is as good as this one because that’s the one that I own.

  3. JoAnn says:

    I read this many years ago. The plot has become fuzzy, but I still remember the quote you included! Not sure why I haven’t gotten around to reading her other books…

    • Teresa says:

      JoAnn, That quote is a memorable one! And I can understand not reading more of her books because it happens to me all the time. I’ll discover a great author, decide to read all that author’s books, and then immediately get distracted by another shiny new author!

  4. Steph says:

    This was the first Atkinson I ever read and I really loved it. I loved how vibrant and fresh it opened, and I thought it told a very honest story about families and mothers and daughters. I have Emotionally Weird by Atkinson, and that will probably be the one I read next.

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, It is a wonderfully honest story, and told in such a fresh and interesting voice. I was thinking of making Emotionally Weird my next, too, mostly because I love the title.

  5. Juxtabook says:

    I loved Behind the Scenes, as you know. I enjoyed her other two literary novels too but not as much as this first. It’s quite a debut novel isn’t it?!

    I have read and enjoyed one of her mysteries and must get onto the rest of them.

  6. Deb says:

    I haven’t read any of Atkinson’s “mainstream” (as opposed to mystery) fiction yet, but if it’s anything like her Jackson Brodie trilogy (Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News), it’s sure to be fantastic. The books are much more about the big “mysteries” of life than about the smaller mysteries of who-did-what-and-why; in fact, as an avid reader of mysteries, I’d say the mystery element in those books was rather weak, but that was more than made up for by the humanity, the humor (even in the midst of some horrible happenings), the characters, and Atkinson’s confident, controlled writing style.

    When you do read the Brodie trilogy (as I call it in my head–although I hope Atkinson will write more about Brodie), please read them in the order they were published. I know some people say you can read them as stand-alone books, but you’ll get more out of it if you read the books in order.

  7. That excerpt sounds absolutely wonderful! I might have to give this one a go, just because of your glowing review. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, The Drowning Tree « The Literary Omnivore

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