Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

I first read this book aged fourteen, I remember my English teacher was very impressed and I found this rather peculiar … it’s only after having been a teacher myself that I understand how exciting it is to have a pupil who actually likes reading.  This one was Kate Atkinson’s first novel and it’s still the one I like the best, so when it was on offer for £2.99, I leapt at the chance to have my own copy.  Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a family story, in all its grubby, glowering glory.  This is the life of Ruby Lennox, daughter to George and Bunty – the story begins with the words “I exist!” catching the act of conception which occurs as the clock chimes twelve while Bunty is pretending to be asleep and skipping across the important events not only of Ruby’s life but also those of her family members and ancestors over a whole century.  As you can imagine, this is very much my kind of book.  Plus it helps that it’s set in York which is an old stomping ground – I lived there between the ages of four and ten so a lot of Ruby’s child’s eye level impressions of York are the same as the ones that I have.  Still, even if it were set somewhere I had never heard of, I would still love this book.  As indeed should the rest of the world.

Kate Atkinson captures the family in all its anarchy, fury and stubborn love.  The Lennoxes have their secrets, many of which it is clear that they will never puzzle out.  There is much of sadness, heartbreak and disappointment in this book but yet it is still an uplifting story that again celebrates the stories that are told about our families and those which are not told at all.  This is not always a sunny portrayal but still, there are images from this novel that strike chords about my own family.  We are none of us perfect and your family walks with you for your whole life.  You may seemingly have little in common with them but somehow you are all cut from the same cloth and your family will always remember your mis-steps even as you hope that they will cheer with you when things go well.

Ruby is a gently mocking protagonist, affectionate towards her family’s foibles but not letting a single one slip past.  She is the youngest of the Lennox children, with the solemn Patricia and the attention-seeking Gillian blazing the trail ahead of her. Not planned, born to an indignant mother and a father who was busy telling a large-chested woman he wasn’t married, Ruby just gets on with things quietly in the background and takes stock of those around her.  She recounts the stories of her childhood, conception, birth, the Coronation and on through to adulthood, pausing for significant family and world events.

Ruby appears to be an omniscient narrator, aware of the fates of various family members whose whereabouts never made it back to the rest of the clan.  She also lets the reader know from only a few pages in that her sister Gillian will meet an untimely end under the wheels of a Hillman Husky outside the York Theatre Royal, this is the Incredible Shrinking Family – by the mid 1960s, it will be just Bunty and Ruby sitting down at the kitchen table.  Still, despite the family tragedies, Ruby keeps a refreshingly light touch to the narrative.  When Gillian dies just before Christmas, the remaining Lennox girls open the presents that they have received from her ‘from beyond the grave’ and admit that despite Gillian’s dead state, the presents are still absolute rubbish.  Ruby tries to cope with the trauma by praying for Gillian, succeeding in giving herself housemaid’s knee in the process.

Weaving in and out of these episodes are the other snippets from family history, Ruby’s great-grandmother foolishly agrees to have all of her children photographed even though she cannot afford it.  Granny Nell tries to find a husband in WW1, Bunty tries to get a personality in WW2.  Ruby still tells the story, somehow still all-knowing even back in the past.  It is not heavy-handed, but Ruby draws all of these women together, making clear that actions taken a hundred years before can still affect one’s family but also how patterns repeat, even when it goes unnoticed by all involved.

England vs. the Family’s sworn enemy The Hun

My favourite episode though was the Family Wedding.  Not only was it a highly convincing tribal affair but there is the added horror of it being 1966 and the same day as the World Cup Final.  Ruby’s Uncle Ted has been a reluctant groom and when his wife discovers him (along with all the other men of the family) have sloped off to watch the football, she tearfully asks him if he thinks his wedding is more impotant than the match.  ‘Lies which had flown so easily from Ted’s lips before utterly desert him and he shouts “Of course not, it’s the bloody final!”  Coming from a family where my Dad goes to watch important matches at the golf club because once eight years ago my Mum stepped in front of the TV to ask him about the tumble drier, I can completely believe that that would happen.

In many ways this is a story of female desperation … and to a certain extend expanding opportunities for women.  Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice has to choose between her hated teaching and marriage to a drunkard, while Nell has a wider range of suitors but still a solidly matrimonial fate, Bunty had more job options but still … it is only when we reach the 1970s and Ruby that more convincing alternatives start to appear.  All four women were looking for somebody to love them, looking for a better way of being and yet they all came to realise that they had made a mistake but it is only as divorce became more socially acceptable that there could be any way of escape.

Alice, Nell, Bunty and Ruby hand the pattern of marital disappointment down to each other – the children who they are too harried to love, the danger of the bitterness creeping in. From what I have gathered, Kate Atkinson herself wrote this as a divorcee so I think it would be fair to speculate that she wrote this from some kind of personal angle … I don’t want to say that she is Ruby but there are certain parallels. They are both happily divorced with two children, Ruby ends the novel planning to write about her family. I’ve read several novels by Kate Atkinson and I’ve always thought that she had some personal experience of abuse or even incest since it crops up alarmingly often. Even in Behind the Scenes at the Museum there is Uncle Ted who likes little girls who show their knickers – it’s subtle but the theme is still in the background. It isn’t terribly important about how close Ruby is to Kate… the point is that Kate Atkinson Knows Of What She Speaks.

Regular readers (I am still so excited that I have these, you are wonderful people and I thank you again for reading) will know that I like stories about families. My family is very important to me. Myself, I think it is fascinating to spot patterns of behaviour in families but it is very tempting to think that in spotting them we solve them. By accident of birth, my family is a matriarchy – we just have never really produced many boys, it makes drumming up ushers for weddings difficult. I am descended from a line of women who can pack a sturdy verbal punch. Just because we can though does not mean that we often do, all of the women in my family have at some point put up with something that they should not have done.

For me, the incidents can seem minor but they have still been painful. Three years ago, I sat and did not defend myself when someone ranted at me that I was immoral – I hate arguing, I always feel as if things are my fault when people are cross and this year I spent a lot of time feeling anxious and unhappy at work, not really noticing that I was being taken advantage of. It’s not about being aggressive, but remembering to assert your right to be happy is surprisingly difficult. When Ruby’s sister Patricia confesses that this is her true ambition, it is not said melodramatically – they are just ordinary people, we all of us want to be happy and yet for so many, other people’s actions and the ghosts that haunt can make it difficult.

The Big Reveal in this book is something incredibly startling – we have been travelling with Ruby as she narrates the Family and she seems to be omniscient, aware of the foolish mother Alice’s unfortunate life, knowing what became of Lawrence. Turning the corner and discovering that Ruby has not been telling us everything comes as a shock but yet, the truth was always out plain to see. Ruby’s terror looking at the ice, the alphabet cards, she never forgot, she simply couldn’t bear to think about it. I realise this more and more, deep down family secrets are not secrets at all. Somewhere subconsciously, the truth is waiting to be recognised. For me anyway, this has been the way of things. The ground-shifting moment, the ceiling flips and you realise, it was there all along. It was one of the most satisfying literary twists that I have ever read.

Something which I only picked up on a re-read though was the way that the characters’ choices affected the way they were remembered.  Alice, the foolish mother, was forgotten and never looked-for by her children.  Our decisions in life to do something or not to do something will affect the way we are remembered.  My grandfather died nearly five years ago and I can already tell that he will live on in the stories we tell, just as my grandmother’s mother and grandparents have.  If I were to tell the Behind the Scenes of my own family, their voices would sing out.  But other family members we are glad to forget, we do not curse them but we do not mourn them, their deeds in life have granted them a death far more final and silent.  Ruby’s life is punctuated by more than the usual amount of grief but it is clear that she believes this too.

Three generations of my family loved this book, although my Grandma recommended it to one of her friends who condemned it as depraved and got other people from her church to agree with her and then declare that my Grandma was depraved too. Weird, eh? Despite the traumatic significance of Behind the Scenes at the Museum in Grandma’s life, I love this book. Coming back to it after a long break was a lovely experience. It is a great warm hug of a read. The Lennox children were not well parented – their best ever family holiday came courtesy of their father’s mistress, not all of them even liked each other but when it came down to it, Ruby realises that the most precious things to her, the things she would want to take with her to the future, it’s her sisters. My only sister is a long way away from me, my brother too but this book made me think of them and my other family and reminded me once again of the unstoppable, inescapable, unending nature of family ties. We may not have the family we might have picked ourselves, but those we have are precious and we have no option but to love them.

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Published by Black Swan on January 3rd 1998
Pages: 384
ISBN: 0552776009

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