Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel
Kate Atkinson (1995, Picador)
To start at the very beginning: Ruby Lennox is conceived, she informs us in the first paragraph, by a drunken father, George, and his wife, Bunty, who is pretending to be asleep. She uses her time in utero to examine the nooks and crannies of Bunty’s unhappiness, which we’ll hear more about throughout the novel, and to establish her cheeky, knowledgeable voice.
Ruby’s life story makes up the main narrative of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but between those chapters, we get extensive historical footnotes: capsule histories of Bunty; her mother, Nell; and Nell’s mother and step-mother, Alice and Rachel, none of whom is particularly blessed with good cheer or good fortune. Generation after generation, these women find their children intolerably burdensome. The husbands in the picture are no prizes either: when they’re not swilling down beer with their mates, they’re having a go at some willing floozy, or gambling away the family estate.
Besides their miserable childhoods, and their own terrible choices, these people are at the mercy of the Twentieth Century. Nell’s marital fortunes are upset by World War I, as Bunty’s are by the second great war. There’s also plenty of poverty and neglect to go around, to say nothing of abuse--people fling things at other people’s heads every fifty pages or so--and all kinds of death.
Yet somehow it’s all very entertaining. Partly it’s the writing, of which I can’t give you a sample because the meaning of each sentence depends so much on its context. It’s fun to follow various motifs as they loop through the family’s tangled history. Old photographs, a locket, a head of blond curls, a gesture, all turning up in new places, with new meanings that don’t erase the old ones: the china Nell’s suitors drink from turns up, two generations later, as a saucer to feed the dog from.
Kate Atkinson’s authorial finesse, and courtesy, permits her to embed these things without drawing too much attention to them. She leaves us a few riddles, too; none of the characters, not even our Ruby, knows all that’s going on. (One of these riddles is what, precisely, the title alludes to, but maybe I’m overthinking it.)
I enjoyed the ground-level tour of York, and the countryside of northern England, and the trenches at Ypres, rats and all. One of the reasons I prefer non-fiction to fiction is that the world it describes continues after I put the book down, and this book contrives to feel like history in that sense. It also feels like capital-L Literature, yet without being precious, or trying too hard to dazzle. Perhaps I just mean to say that you could read it again, the next day or a decade later, and get something rich out of it.
Any Good Books, email edition, January 2013