1995 - Behind the Scenes at the Museum
What a book. If I hadn't committed to this challenge I probably would not have finished this one due to its slow start and the fact that I'm over family sagas at the moment, but damned if the last third of the book didn't keep me up way past my bedtime and leave me a bawling, hot mess of emotion. Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum is weighty, introspective, funny, and devastating. She won the Whitbread Book of the Year for debut novels for this work.
The premise is simple: through a series of vignettes and flashbacks spanning several generations of ancestors, Ruby Lennox comes to learn who she really is and what her place in her family represents. It is a story primarily about women: mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, aunts, cousins, friends.
Strangely, it is written with an omniscient first person perspective. There is no accounting for some of the things Ruby knows and shares with the readers, in particular elements of her ancestor's stories that no one else in the family ever knew. In another work this would make me question the reliability of the narrator; here, Ruby's preternatural, seemingly inherited, memories simply make her own lived experience that much more vivid. Atkinson's writing is sharp and dynamic. She changes the tone as Ruby gets older: less enthusiasm, more second-guessing. The first passage below is from a three-year-old Ruby Teddy is her teddy bear.
"We linger on the threshold of the bedroom for a while--thresholds are safe, but unfortunately you can't stay on them forever. Also, the wolves that live on the stairs can't cross them (or they'd be all over the house), which is good, but the bed is on the other side of the room, which is bad. There are things living under the camp bed. There are a handful of crocodiles and a small dragon but mainly they are nameless things without clear definition or taxonomy. But one thing is certain--all the things that live under the bed, named or unnamed, have teeth. Teeth that will snap vulnerable little ankles when they try to get into bed.
Speed is the only stratagem here. Ready, Teddy--steady, Teddy--Go! Little slippered feet patter across the linoleum, little hearts go thud, thud, thud, as we get near the danger zone--two feet from the bed--we launch ourselves onto the camp bed, which nearly collapses, but we are safe. Safe, that is, as long as we don't fall out of bed during the night. I stuff Teddy down the front of my pyjamas, just in case." p. 105
This passage is a grown adult Ruby:
"Down, down, down. I hurtle down through space and time and darkness. [...] Then, thankfully, I slow up and start to float as if attached to an invisible parachute. Now that I've slowed down I can make out strange objects in the darkness, things petrified in stone and dolls and spoons, and when I see something that looks like a Mobo horse carved in marble I gasp in delight because I had quite forgotten him. [...] Down and down, floating like thistledown, passing Patricia's panda and Gillan's Sooty and Granny Nell's old Ekco radio and I realize with a thrill of delight that I must be in the Lost Property Cupboard--not the school one, but the great metaphysical one. Soon I'll reach the bottom and find my lost memories and then everything will be all right.
Someone thrusts a companionable paw into my hand and I turn my head and see Teddy smiling sadly at me. 'It's the end of the world, you know,' he says, and, overjoyed, I say, 'Oh, Teddy--you can speak!' and he says, 'In the Lost Property Cupboard all animals can speak,' and I'm so happy for him but then his face darkens and he says, 'Watch out for the Rings of Saturn, Ruby! Don't forget they're--' but then his paw slips out of mine before he can say anything else and suddenly I begin to accelerate again. [...] I grow afraid that this is a journey that will go on forever and I search my mind for the terrible thing I must have done to deserve such a punishment." p. 284-285
Notice how much darker and more brooding the second passage is? She's facing imaginary terrors in both, but her fear in the second passage is as powerful as the bravery in the first. Atkinson's character development is incredibly skillful.
I do need to mention the title. I don't know what it means. No museum plays a significant role in the story (unless I really missed something). I suppose it's a metaphor and the novel gives us insight into the diorama of Ruby's family? Maybe? I'm not giving it too much thought since Atkinson's titles, in general, seem to be on the vague side: Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World. Nevertheless, Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a worthwhile read. Similar books that I recommend:
- In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
- Hanna's Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson
- When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
All three stories explore multiple generations of a family, weaving the past and present to shed light on the protagonist's experience. Family sagas are a prominent sub-genre within literary fiction. They present rich opportunities for eccentric characters, thematic repetition, and foils. As I mentioned, I'm a bit tapped out on this structure myself, but if done well they can be complex, reflective, and impactful.
Keep turning the page,