Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s since a couple of years ago, when I read her three Jackson Brodie mysteries and then Human Croquet. Teresa fell in love with her shortly thereafter, when she read the Brodie mysteries, Emotionally Weird, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Teresa’s review of this latter book, Atkinson’s debut novel, is terrific, and says all I could want to say about plot and voice, so go ahead, click through and read it, and then come back. I’ll wait, and then give you some of my own reactions to this marvelous and intricate novel.

I have frequently run into this problem, where the blurbs on a book jacket will give me the idea that a book is terribly funny, and then when I read it I find the primary tone melancholy or even outright sad. In the comments of his recent discussion of Trollope, Amateur Reader suggested that “comic” and “heartbreaking” are not necessarily at odds, and that’s certainly true of Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

One of the main motifs that winds its way through the book — the one I loved the best — was that of the “woman lost in time.” The irrepressible Ruby Lennox describes generation after generation of women who have lost their identity or been subsumed to others or been forgotten for other reasons. Not one you play for belly laughs. Yet even when it’s heartbreaking (war, bad marriages, the death of children) it’s never grim or sentimental, partly because of the voice Teresa represents so well, and partly because Ruby (or rather, Atkinson) takes such a vivid interest in each character. Each individual has a story: a beginning, a middle, an end. There are no bit parts. The fact that the book starts with that hilarious bit about Ruby’s conception confirms it: we all take center stage for someone, even if only for ourselves.

One thing I noticed, reading this book, is that Atkinson presents the nature of the world itself as dangerous for her women (and, to a slightly lesser extent, for her men as well.) Each element offers death: fire, water, earth, air. There isn’t any escape from it, except to the relative peace of Canada, and even then, time is master. Still, the book is never fatalistic or depressing. There’s a healing sense to all this knowledge, and to the self-discovery that accompanies it.

I think Kate Atkinson is a marvel: her writing always seems to be exactly what’s needed, even if you don’t know, going in, what that is. Even when her writing sparkles and jumps and experiments, it never gets in its own way. I can’t believe how quickly she’s become a solid favorite of mine. Long may it last.

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9 Responses to Behind the Scenes at the Museum

  1. Deb says:

    I haven’t read this one, but I’ve read all of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books and if there’s one message that comes across loud and clear in all of them it’s that life is dangerous for women, full of traps both physical and emotional. Often it’s Brodie himself who feels this more strongly than the women he’s trying to warn/protect.

    On the other hand, I found myself laughing out loud at many scenes in the books. Not big belly laughs, but the laughter than comes from the recognition of the paradoxes and contradictions of the human condition. Any author who can make you laugh and cry with the same book–sometimes in the same chapter–is an ace with me!

    • Jenny says:

      Deb, your second paragraph here is an excellent summary of why I love Atkinson’s writing. She does so beautifully with exactly those paradoxes and contradictions — life is messy, and she points it up wonderfully!

  2. Mystica says:

    I had not even heard of this one so am very grateful for the review. I will be keeping an eye out for this book.

  3. Teresa says:

    I’m so happy you loved this as much as I did. I can’t quite decide if this or Emotionally Weird is my favorite Atkinson—I think Emotionally Weird, but only by a hair. (And of course I still have yet to read Human Croquet, Not the End of the World, and Started Early, Took the Dog)

    • Jenny says:

      I can’t decide between any of them, honestly. She is just so good. Emotionally Weird is next on my Atkinson list. Did you ever get the ARC of SE, TMD?

      • Teresa says:

        Nope, I shall probably put myself on the library holds list, though, as soon as the TBR dare is over. Or I could borrow your copy when I see you in April? (Squee!)

  4. nymeth says:

    Having recently finished and loved Case Histories, I can’t wait to get my hands on this. A lovely review, Jenny.

  5. Lesley says:

    I read this one a few years ago for a book club and absolutely loved it, but I haven’t attempted to read any of her other books, since if I recall correctly, they are mainly crime fiction and that’s not a genre that really appeals to me.

    I agree with you on the funny reviews about books. It is very misleading; there’s another one I can’t think of now where the cover quote said something out laugh-out loud hilarity and it was not in the least. And I think I have a pretty decent sense of humor!

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