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.