Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

by Stephen Tall on April 21, 2017

kate atkBehind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

This is the thirteenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list.

I absolutely loved her later historical books Life After Life and its sort-of-sequel A God in Ruins, so I was curious to read her debut, breakthrough novel, which beat Salman Rushdie and Roy Jenkins to the 1996 Whitbread prize — a literary shock which provoked much sexist comment, as Hilary Mantel noted in her LRB review.

It’s not quite as good as those, but then that’s a very, very high bar. Behind the Scenes tells the first-person story of Ruby Lennox, from the moment of her birth (“I exist!”) in a exhuberantly jaunty and omniscient tone, revealing much of what’s going to happen, such as her sister Gillian’s death, while simultaneously suppressing some major surprises.

But this book is about more than just Ruby, with capsuled footnotes gradually unveiling five generations of Ruby’s family history. These vignettes are gorgeous stories in their own right, though not as compelling as Ruby’s own, so they do disrupt the narrative a little. However, they accrete to form a complete account of the Lennoxes, a melancholy family saga of guilty secrets (especially disappearing/abandoned children) and guiltier love.