This the third of Kate Atkinson’s books I’ve read and as in reading the others (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) I discovered it takes a nimble mind, some patience, and a lot of trust. The author likes to play with the traditional rules of story arcs, time, and points of view. She weaves back-stories and other bits of ephemera into the narrative, picking up a thread here and there. This book includes “footnotes” which are referenced as the story moves ahead and tell stories of secondary characters who likely think they are main characters. And as is so often the case, the family secrets they reveal hold keys to understanding seemingly inexplicable behaviors.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins in 1951–at the very beginning– with Ruby Lennox, the omniscient narrator saying, “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock…I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter…my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments.”
Atkinson is expert in infusing her writing with period details, especially the habits, standards, and expectations of middle class women of that time in England. However, I was glad to have read this on my Kindle so that I could easily look up unfamiliar British slang and products of 1950s and 60s. Ruby’s description of her beloved Mobo horse tickled me, as my husband’s Mobo is one of our prized possessions.
I’m torn between advising you to savor this book or read it fast. There are several generations of characters to keep straight and if you wait too long between readings–as I did– you might forget who the heck they are. Another advantage to the Kindle–its x-ray feature allows you to easily backtrack. I think a long day of travel or a rainy weekend in a comfy chair would be just about right.
Reading Atkinson—at least these three books—reminds me of looking at a pointillist painting. The big picture doesn’t emerge until you step back from it. Nonetheless, her wry humor and use of language are definitely worth the effort.
As a newborn in the nursery, Ruby tells us:
“We lie in our cots, wrapped tightly in the white cotton-cellular blankets, like promises, like cocoons waiting to hatch into something. Or little baby parcels.”
On discovering Catholicism with her friend:
“I’m more than happy to help out—banking up good deeds with the Lamb, for although He is meek and mild He is also (inexplicably) part of the trio that can consign you to the Inferno.”
And imagery after a long, cold walk home:
“By the time we get back to the Shop there are frozen roses in our cheeks and little shards of ice in our hearts.”
After the loss of her sisters:
“I’m an only child now with all the advantages (money, clothes, records) and all the disadvantages (loneliness, isolation, anguish). I’m all they’ve got left, a ruby solitaire, a kind of chemical reduction of all their children.”
And a difference of opinion:
“’The past is what you leave behind, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”