Book Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson (Picador, 1995)

I’ve loved the three previous novels that I’ve read by Kate Atkinson – Life After Life, A God in Ruins and Transcription so when I found a secondhand copy of her first novel a few months ago I happily brought it home. While the story of Ruby Lennox and her family is ultimately an enjoyable novel, it suffers in comparison with Atkinson’s more recent work.

The novel begins at the moment of Ruby Lennox’s conception. It’s 1951 in York, England and Ruby comes into existence by accident. As a fetus, she can hear her mother Bunty’s inner thoughts and knows immediately that she is an unplanned and unwanted surprise. She is born in 1952 and brought home to her older sisters, Patricia and Gillian. Each segment jumps forward through Ruby’s life, marked by the year and narrated by Ruby. Her narrative voice changes as she ages, as does, of course, her understanding of the things she’s witnessing around her. Her mother and father, Bunty and George, own a pet store in York and have a deeply unhappy relationship, both unfaithful and various times. Patricia, the oldest sister, is introspective and withdrawn. Gillian is the middle and favourite child with golden curls and an unpleasant personality. None of the children are particularly loved or adored though as Bunty is deeply resentful of her life and motherhood. As tragedy strikes and the family ties unravel further, Ruby and her sisters are left even more unmoored and on their own.

In between the chapters of Ruby’s life are footnotes, tenuously connected to the chapter that has come before and focusing on various moments and members of Ruby’s family history. We delve deep into her maternal heritage. We go back as far as Ruby’s great-grandmother, Alice, who left beyond a newborn Nell, the youngest of six children. Nell grows up to be Ruby’s grandmother, mother of Bunty. We learn a lot of Nell’s years as a young woman, the fates of her other siblings, particularly her closest sister Lillian and their adored brother Albert (another inheritor of the angelic golden curls). Their young adulthood is shaped by the Great War, years where death becomes a common visitor. There are recurring themes and connections between the women of this family, from shared physical characteristics to (seemingly) a propensity to unplanned pregnancy. (Granted, this is also a reality of the time for many women.)

I found these footnote sections delving into the histories of these multiple women much more interesting and engaging than Ruby’s history. I liked the character of young Nell more than I did Ruby and then was disappointed when Nell shows up as Ruby’s grandmother but is completely drained of thought or character that she once had. Atkinson relies a bit too heavily on the same stories over and over again and at times it became hard to keep track of the many characters, especially when the story wasn’t told in a linear timeline.

There are clear echoes of Behind the Scenes at the Museum in Atkinson’s later work, Life After Life. Both the historical era and some of the life experiences that Ursula goes through in the latter, appeared in Atkinson’s first novel. Having read her more recent work first, it’s clear to me how Atkinson has become a stronger, more succinct, and more nuanced writer. Her characters in Life After Life (and some of them reappear in A God in Ruins) are much more complicated and thus sympathetic. It was an interesting experience to see the development of a writer and it makes me excited for what we’ll get from Atkinson next. If you’ve never read her work before, you might enjoy this first work. However, if you have started at the end like I have, you might be better off staying there.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson”

    1. She’s an excellent writer so don’t let this put you off! Life After Life is one of my favourite books and I’ve never read her mystery stories but apparently they’re very good too.

  1. Great review! I’ve been meaning to read Atkinson for ages but sadly haven’t gotten around to it yet despite having a couple of her books on my shelves. I put Life After Life on my “20 in 20” list so hopefully this will be the year for it. I don’t know if I can get around to Behind the Scenes beforehand, although it would be interesting to see those echoes between the works and look at her writing development! I always find things like that interesting. If I can find a copy I’d like to try to fit it in.

    1. Life After Life is one of my favourite books! It was interesting to read this one because you can see the inklings of Life After Life here and the beginnings of the way Atkinson plays with narration and timelines. I would be interested to hear someone’s perspective on reading Behind the Scenes first but I’d have to recommend Life After Life more strongly.

  2. I’ve only read a bit of Atkinson, but it’s funny, the people that seem to love her have said her older stuff is better than her newer stuff! A lot of reader reactions to authors trajectories seem to depend on when we enter their body of work, and in what order…interesting that we all come at them in different ways 🙂

    1. That’s interesting! I started at the end and only began with Life After Life when it first came out, then read the next two. Going back to the beginning, it seems that more recently Atkinson has been getting more experimental with her story telling. It’s something I like but might not appeal to everyone.

  3. I love the idea of being able to know what a fetus is thinking, and it’s especially sad that she knew her parents didn’t want her. Based on your review, I would be more interested in following Ruby instead of going back to her kin, but I also have an aversion to books with time time periods that are both prominent.

  4. Gosh, it’s so long since I read this that even your review hasn’t triggered my memories of it, except that I do remember loving it at the time. Oddly I’ve had considerably less success with her later work, which I suspect is more to do with my changing tastes than her progression as a writer. I think what made this one stand out at the time was that it seemed so original – I think she influenced quite a lot of what came after so that it probably doesn’t have quite the same impact now.

    1. I could definitely see that Atkinson has influenced other writers. It does feel less fresh to go backward in her work, I think, being familiar with some of those other authors.

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