Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

I expected to start out this entry by saying that this was the freshest and funniest book I’d read in a long time. My bark of laughter at the first sentence sent my surprised cat shooting off my lap and running to hide under the couch. I never LOL at a book. Well, almost never. However, the further into the book I got, still snorting at the narrator’s wit, the more I saw the story’s serious side.

This is the first-person narrative of Ruby Lennox, born in 1952 to the owners of a pet shop in York, England. First person can be tricky and often is a turn-off for me, but here it is handled brilliantly. Atkinson captures the voice and viewpoint of a child at every stage of life, from the wonder and egocentricity of a baby up through the insolence and depression of a teenager. Woven into Ruby’s story are the stories of her family. In a series of footnotes, Ruby bares the complicated tangles of their relationships, the losses they suffer, and the dreams they are unable to fulfill. What gradually emerges is the way reckless choices affect the later generations.

If this sounds a bit like Charming Billy in theme, it is, although the execution is totally different. The tone here is about as far as you can get from the gentle, ineluctable recounting of McDermott’s book. Also, focusing on so many people rather than just one necessarily diffuses the impact. However, the final picture is similar: communities, families held together with stories and secrets, needing in the end each other in ways they never expected.

This family included generation after generation of children at risk—ignored, considered more of a burden than anything else—and parents who were too self-centered to notice or care what impact their behavior had on the children. As a parent myself, and one who immoderately adores her brilliant and talented offspring, I found the selfishness of these parents incomprehensible, until the weight of their lives, particularly those of the women, and the aridity of their choices made me—however reluctantly—sympathetic. Without birth control, without the rights women enjoy today, women of as little as fifty years ago had to bear child after child, long past what their physical strength and financial resources could sustain.

Ruby’s funny and surprisingly sweet story left me thinking about the fragility of the family, how tenuous its structure is, how easy it is to loose the ties that McDermott celebrated. People disappear, homes are broken up or abandoned or burnt. Memory and the meaning of the past can slip away before we know it, leaving us with only a photograph and a silver locket.

One thought on “Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

  1. […] somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A God in Ruins, like its companion novel, seems more like an […]

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