“‘The past is what you leave behind in life, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”
Atkinson’s exceptional debut novel open with the birth of Ruby Lennox and follows her as she comes of age in England in the second half of the twentieth century. In the meantime we are introduced to her family, the Lennox’s, who live above their pet shop and where she and her sisters often work and play. Ruby’s life is told in the first person and she makes an interesting eye into her life and her family. Alternate chapters offer flashbacks; going back to her great grandmother Alice and then following each generation through wars, affairs, bereavement and love. These chapters are told from the view point of each individual. The women are given more space than the men and we are shown what it was like to be powerless, to be a mother, to suffer loss and to find a way to save yourself. Ruby’s mother Bunty in particular is a fantastic character. She is frequently frightful, difficult and unlikable, but she is so completely recognisable. Sibling relationships and female relationships, mothers and daughters, are investigated throughout Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
There are several brilliant comedic scenes. The wedding that has been timed to coincide with the 1966 World Cup final, where England played West Germany and for the only time ever won is a masterclass in written comedy. At no point does it seem farcical as disaster piles upon misunderstanding until the whole wedding is a riot. Later on the family go on holiday with their next door neighbours. This was disastrous for many reasons, one of the most obvious being that one should never holiday with both your husband, your secret lover and his wife. Putting all together in a small cottage in a remote area of Scotland along with a bunch of children and a surly teenager was not a winning start, but a fabulously entertaining read.
When the first chapter opened I wasn’t sure that this was going to be the novel for me, however it very quickly picked up and became a wonderful, fascinating read. The ending fell a little flat as our favourite characters had quickly changed and grown away from the surroundings and history that made her. However the bulk of the 500 page novel was a compulsive read. Referring to the title there is a saying that we are the curators of our own lives, which perhaps has little meaning to others. This is a museum of Ruby that stretches back to a rare set of photographs taken of her great grandmother and travels down through the decades to her. It is also fascinating how characters keep repeating the patterns of their ancestors without realising it; almost as though a combination of conditioning and genetic memory keep these things in the family. This is also a story of mothers and their children, often losing their children.
Some members of the book club felt that the quantity of characters made things confusing. This isn’t something I found though. The novel is concerned with the history of one family and a family tree at the beginning of the novel may have been useful. However in this case I feel it should be the other way round. A traditional family tree branches out however with this one it feels as though the focal point, the point of connection should be Ruby, with the branches reaching out from her and into the past.
Behind The Scenes at the Museum has a very strong awareness of space and time, of how different people, families and generations can inhabit one space. Atkinson suggests that elements linger on in the buildings and in ruins. In the first few pages our protagonist has this to say “there has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due proportion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our back”. This idea is touched upon throughout the novel. Much later on Ruby states “if I stand on the stairs and close my eyes, I can hear the voices of the household ghosts being carried hither and thither on the current of air. Do they miss us, I wonder?”.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is very readable, in the best sense. It is one of the many popular novels that shows you can tackle the big themes and ideas of life through strong entertaining character driven plots that do not trip over themselves to be ‘literary’
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, (Transworld Publishers, London, 1995) 490, Paperback