I finished this a few weeks ago but in a deepening post-Brexit gloom haven’t felt like posting a review. In fact I began the book before Brexit, and finished post, so to be frank my mind wasn’t always on Atkinson and her novel!
I was surprised by Behind the Scenes at the Museum as it had nothing to do with a museum! It was Atkinson’s first book, and I came to it so late because the title had always put me off, as I had taken it rather literally, and found that idea uninspiring.
In fact Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the life story of Ruby Lennox, born in York in 1952, and also the story of her family. The chapters alternate between Ruby’s own life, and the lives of a large and interesting cast of characters drawn from her family history – characters whose lives began before and during the first world war, and whose descendants lived to the end of that century. The sections on the family history are inspired by photographs or objects stored from generation to generation- such as an especially pretty button kept in a biscuit tin by a child, or photographs taken by a mysterious travelling Frenchman whose life intrudes further into Ruby’s family history. These images and objects are the museum referred to in the title.
Ruby is the daughter of Bunty, rather an unsympathetic and damaged mother with an unfaithful husband and a tragic element to her personal history. With her three sisters Ruby lives in a pet shop in York. It’s a city I know a little of, and I could certainly identify with Ruby’s experiences, as she is of my generation.
There are fires and family feuds, accidental deaths on frozen ponds and trips with an “aunty” to far away Scarborough where fish and chips and Irish tales provide an unusual break from the stifling pet shop and the emotionally illiterate mother.
There is an element of mystery to the plot which is clarified in the final pages and goes some way to explaining the rather cold, almost cruel upbringing experienced by Ruby at her mother’s hands. The portrayal of Ruby’s father and his philandering has its amusing moments but is essentially one of betrayal and unhappiness, though this is only experienced at second hand by the child narrator. We see her sisters from Ruby’s point of view, and the portrayal of them is not always flattering but Atkinson does a good job in showing us adolescent malaise, sibling rivalry and a bickering family.
The earlier generations are in some ways more romantically portrayed – perhaps as a result of the more constrained approaches to love and courtship in that generation, and also due to their tragic experiences of the first world war. They suffered later from the bombing of York by a zeppelin!
As usual Atkinson writes with imagination and humour – she is very talented, and her writing is always fresh and original. For me though this book was a bit of a struggle as there are so many characters, so it’s not always easy to remember their place in the family picture. I found this particularly the case with the first generation growing up at the start of WW1. I was left feeling quite confused, but without the impetus to look more closely and sort it all out. I think a family tree would have helped!