This was Kate Atkinson’s first novel, published in 1995, and yet it’s one of the last of her books that I’ve read. Having read and loved her two most recent books, Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as Human Croquet and three of the Jackson Brodie mysteries, I was curious to see what her earliest work was like – but I can honestly say this doesn’t feel like a first novel. It’s ambitious, accomplished, and covers some of the themes and ideas she would return to again in later books.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is narrated by Ruby Lennox; we first meet her in 1951 while she’s still in the womb, before following her through birth, childhood and into adulthood. Along the way we get to know Ruby’s parents – the irresponsible, lying, cheating George and the long-suffering Bunty – and her two older sisters, naughty Gillian and quiet Patricia. They’re not a particularly happy family but, at least at first, they are leading a fairly normal life in their rooms above the pet shop they own in York. When she is four years old, Ruby is sent away to stay with her Aunt Babs for a while; she’s not sure why, and it’s after this that everything seems to start going wrong.
Each chapter narrated by Ruby is followed by another chapter (which Atkinson calls Footnotes but are usually as long, if not longer than, the actual chapters) telling the story of the previous generations of Ruby’s family. These Footnotes are not necessarily given in chronological order, so in one we might read about Ruby’s great-grandmother, Alice, before jumping forward in time to meet Bunty as a child, and then back again for an episode from Bunty’s mother’s teenage years. If this all sounds very complicated, that’s because it is! I would highly recommend drawing a quick family tree to refer to as you read; that’s what I did and I would have struggled without it.
The quotes on the back cover of the book describe it as ‘hilarious’ and ‘outrageously funny’. I don’t think I would go that far, but Kate Atkinson does have a great sense of humour and there are certainly some very funny scenes in this book (I particularly enjoyed the family holiday in Scotland). However, I also found this quite a sad book and there were a few moments, especially near the end, which brought tears to my eyes. Ruby and her family have to endure lots of disasters and tragedies over the years – deaths, illnesses, fires, betrayals – and so do members of the earlier generations. Sometimes we know in advance what is going to happen – Ruby tells us very early in the book how a certain character is going to die – but in other cases we are taken by surprise.
All of this made me think about the importance of perspective in the novel. Ruby is a young child throughout most of this book and her lack of understanding and awareness make her an unreliable narrator at times. Had the story been written from Bunty’s perspective, for example, or Patricia’s, we would have been given a completely different impression of most of the people and incidents we only have the chance to see through Ruby’s eyes. Some revelations in the final chapters, not just about Ruby but about other characters too, had me flicking back through the book to see if there had been clues that I’d missed – and although there were a few, I think it was simply that I had placed too much trust in Ruby as a narrator instead of reading between the lines and thinking for myself.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is an excellent novel and as with so many of the other Kate Atkinson books I’ve read, I didn’t want to put it down. I only have a few more left to read now – Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World and Started Early, Took My Dog – and am looking forward to all three.