Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

by Kate Atkinson

Paperback(First Edition)

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A deeply moving family story of happiness and heartbreak, Behind the Scenes at the Museum is bestselling author Kate Atkinson's award-winning literary debut.

National Bestseller

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets. Kate Atkinson's first novel is "a multigenerational tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional Yorkshire family and one of the funniest works of fiction to come out of Britain in years" (The New York Times Book Review).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312150600
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/12/1999
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 61,512
Product dimensions: 5.65(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kate Atkinson is the author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year, Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, Case Histories, One Good Turn, and Life after Life. She lives in Edinburgh, UK.

Read an Excerpt




I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. 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 he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.

My father's name is George and he is a good ten years older than my mother, who is now snoring into the next pillow. My mother's name is Berenice but everyone has always called her Bunty.

'Bunty' doesn't seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name? A plain Jane, a maternal Mary? Or something romantic, something that doesn't sound quite so much like a girl's comic – an Aurora, a Camille? Too late now. Bunty's name will be 'Mummy' for a few years yet, of course, but after a while there won't be a single maternal noun (mummy, mum, mam, ma, mama, mom, marmee) that seems appropriate and I more or less give up calling her anything. Poor Bunty.

We live in a place called 'Above the Shop' which is not a strictly accurate description as both the kitchen and dining-room are on the same level as the Shop itself and the topography also includes the satellite area of the Back Yard. The Shop (a pet shop) is in one of the ancient streets that cower beneath the looming dominance of York Minster. In this street lived the first printers and the stained-glass craftsmen that filled the windows of the city with coloured light. The Ninth Legion Hispana that conquered the north marched up and down our street, the via praetoria of their great fort, before they disappeared into thin air. Guy Fawkes was born here, Dick Turpin was hung a few streets away and Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city. Who is to say which of these is real and which a fiction?

These streets seethe with history; the building that our Shop occupies is centuries old and its walls tilt and its floors slope like a medieval funhouse. There has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due portion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our backs. Our ghosts are particularly thick on the staircases, of which there are many. They have much to gossip about. You can hear them if you listen hard, the plash of water from Viking oars, the Harrogate Tally-Ho rattling over the cobblestones, the pat and shuffle of ancient feet at an Assembly Rooms' ball and the scratchscratch of the Reverend Sterne's quill.

As well as being a geographical location, 'Above the Shop' is also a self-contained, seething kingdom with its own primitive rules and two rival contenders for the crown – George and Bunty.

The conception has left Bunty feeling irritable, an emotion with which she's very comfortable, and only after much tossing and turning does she succumb to a restless, dream-laden sleep. Given free choice from the catalogue offered by the empire of dreams on her first night as my mother, Bunty has chosen dustbins.

In the dustbin dream, she's struggling to move two heavy dustbins around the Back Yard. Now and then a vicious tug of wind plasters her hair across her eyes and mouth. She is growing wary of one dustbin in particular; she suspects it's beginning to develop a personality – a personality uncannily like that of George.

Suddenly, as she heaves hard at one of the bins, she loses control of it and it falls with a crash of galvanized metal – CCRASH KERKLUNCK! – spewing its contents over the concrete surface of the yard. Debris, mostly from the Shop, is sprawled everywhere – empty sacks of Wilson's biscuit mix, flattened packets of Trill, tins of Kit-e-Kat and Chappie that have been neatly stuffed with potato peelings and egg shells, not to mention the mysterious newspaper parcels that look as if they might contain severed babies' limbs. Despite the mess, the dreaming Bunty experiences a flush of pleasure when she sees how tidy her rubbish looks. As she bends down and starts picking it all up she becomes aware of something moving behind her. Oh no! Without even turning round she knows that it's the George dustbin, grown into a lumbering giant and now towering over her, about to suck her into its grimy metallic depths ... Somehow, I can't help feeling that this dream doesn't augur well for my future. I want a mother who dreams different dreams. Dreams of clouds like ice-cream, rainbows like sugar-crystal candy, suns like golden chariots being driven across the sky ... still, never mind, it's the beginning of a new era. It's the 3rd of May and later on today the King will perform the opening ceremony for the Festival of Britain and outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.

This garden bird fanfare is soon joined by the squawking of the Parrot down in the Pet Shop below and then – DRRRRRRRRRRRIINGG!!! The bedside alarm goes off and Bunty wakes with a little shriek, slapping down the button on the clock. She lies quite still for a minute, listening to the house. The Dome of Discovery will soon be echoing to the exultant cries of joyful English people looking forward to the future but in our home it's silent apart from the occasional chirrup and twitter of birdsong. Even our ghosts are asleep, curled up in the corners and stretched out along the curtain rails.

The silence is broken by George suddenly snorting in his sleep. The snort arouses a primitive part of his brain and he flings out an arm, pinioning Bunty to the bed, and starts exploring whatever bit of flesh he has chanced to land on (a rather uninspiring part of midriff, but one which houses my very own, my personal, Dome of Discovery). Bunty manages to wriggle out from under George's arm – she's already had to endure sex once in the last twelve hours (me!) – more than once in a day would be unnatural. She heads for the bathroom where the harsh overhead light ricochets off the black-and-white tiles and the chrome fittings and hits Bunty's morning skin in the mirror, making ghastly pools and shadows. One minute she looks like a skull, the next like her own mother. She can't make up her mind which is worse.

She cleans her teeth with some vigour to dispatch the taste of George's tobacco-fumed moustache and then – in order to keep up appearances (an important concept for Bunty, although she's not exactly sure who it is that she's keeping them up for) – she paints on a shapely ruby-red smile and grins at the mirror, her lips retracted, to check for mis-hit lipstick on her teeth. Her mirrored self grins ghoulishly back, but in Bunty's 35mm daydreams she's transformed into a Vivien Leigh-like figure pirouetting in front of a cheval mirror.

Now she's ready to face her first day as my mother. Downstairs, step by creaking step she goes (in daydreamland a great curving plantation staircase – Bunty, I am discovering, spends a lot of time in the alternative world of her daydreams). She's being very quiet because she doesn't want anyone else to wake up yet – especially Gillian. Gillian's very demanding. She's my sister. She's nearly three years old and she's going to be very surprised when she finds out about me.

Bunty makes herself a cup of tea in the kitchen at the back of the Shop, relishing her few moments of morning solitude. In a minute, she'll take George up a cup of tea in bed – not from altruistic motives but to keep him out of her way that bit longer. My poor mother's very disappointed by marriage, it's failed to change her life in any way, except by making it worse. If I listen in on her airwaves I can hear an endless monologue on the drudgery of domestic life – Why didn't anyone tell me what it would be like? The cooking! The cleaning! The work! I wish she would stop this and start daydreaming again but on and on she goes – And as for babies, well ... the broken nights, the power struggles ... the labour pains! She addresses the front right burner of the cooker directly, her head wobbling from side to side, rather like the Parrot in the shop beyond. At least that's all over with ... (Surprise!)

The kettle whistles and she pours the boiling water into a little brown teapot and leans idly against the cooker while she waits for it to brew, a small frown puckering her face as she tries to remember why on earth she married George in the first place.

George and Bunty met in 1944. He wasn't her first choice, that was Buck, an American sergeant (my grandmother had a similar struggle to get married during a war) but Buck had his foot blown off fooling around with a land mine ('Anything for a lark, these Yanks,' Bunty's brother Clifford remarked with distaste) and got shipped back home to Kansas. Bunty spent some considerable time waiting for Buck to write and invite her to share his life in Kansas but she never heard from him again. So George got the woman. In the end, Bunty decided that George with two feet might be a better bet than Buck with one, but now she's not so sure. (Buck and Bunty! What a wonderful-sounding couple they would have made – I can almost see them.)

If Buck had taken Bunty to Kansas think how different all our lives would have been! Especially mine. In 1945 George's father died by falling under a tram on a daytrip to Leeds and George took over the family business – Pets. He married Bunty, thinking that she'd be a big help in the shop (because she'd once worked in one), unaware that Bunty had no intention of working after her marriage. This conflict will run and run.

The tea's brewed. Bunty stirs the spoon round the insides of the little brown teapot and pours herself a cup. My first ever cup of tea. She sits down at the kitchen table and starts daydreaming again, moving beyond her disappointment over Kansas and her ham-tea wedding to George to a place where a flimsy veil moves in a summery breeze and behind the veil is Bunty dressed in gauzy white organza with an eighteen-inch waist and a different nose. The man at her side is unbelievably handsome, remarkably like Gary Cooper, while Bunty herself bears a passing resemblance to Celia Johnson. A huge cloud of orange-blossom threatens to engulf them as they clasp and kiss passionately – then suddenly, an unwelcome note of reality interrupts our reverie, somebody's pulling at Bunty's dressing-gown and whining in a not very pleasant fashion.

Here she is! Here's my sister! Climbing up on Bunty, all arms and soft legs and sweet bedtime smells, crawling her way up the Eiger of Bunty's body and pressing her sleepy face into Bunty's chilly neck. Bunty unclenches the little fists that have fastened on to her hair, and deposits Gillian back on the floor.

'Get down,' Bunty says grimly. 'Mummy's thinking.' (Although what Mummy's actually doing is wondering what it would be like if her entire family was wiped out and she could start again.) Poor Gillian!

Gillian refuses to be ignored for long – she's not that kind of child – and hardly have we had our first sip of tea before we have to attend to Gillian's needs. For breakfast, Bunty cooks porridge, makes toast and boils eggs. George can't stand porridge and likes bacon and sausage and fried bread but Bunty's stomach is a little queasy this morning (I'm privy to all kinds of inside information). 'So if he wants it he can get it himself,' she mutters, doling out a bowlful of (rather lumpy) porridge for Gillian. Then she fills a second bowl for herself – she thinks she might manage a bit of porridge – and then a third bowl. Who can that be for? Goldilocks? Not for me surely? No, indeed not – for here's a surprise – I have another sister! This is good news, even though she looks a little on the melancholic side. She's already washed and dressed in her school uniform and even her hair – cut in a straight, rather unbecoming bob – is brushed. She is just five years old and her name is Patricia. Her plain little face has a somewhat dismal air as she regards the porridge in her bowl. This is because she hates porridge. Gillian is gobbling hers down like the greedy duck in her Ladybird book The Greedy Duck. 'I don't like porridge,' Patricia ventures to Bunty. This is the first time she's tried this direct approach over the porridge, usually she just turns it over and over with a spoon until it's too late to eat it.

'Pardon me?' Bunty says, the words dropping like icicles on the linoleum of the kitchen floor (our mother's not really a morning person).

'I don't like porridge,' Patricia says, looking more doubtful now.

As fast as a snake, Bunty hisses back, 'Well I don't like children, so that's too bad for you, isn't it?' She's joking, of course. Isn't she?

And why do I have this strange feeling, as if my shadow's stitched to my back, almost as if there's someone else in here with me? Am I being haunted by my own embryonic ghost?

'Mind the shop, Bunt!' (Bunt? This is even worse.)

And then he's gone. Just like that! Bunty fumes to herself – He might at least ask. 'Would you mind, Bunty, minding the shop for me.' And of course I would mind, very much. But I'd still have to do it, wouldn't I? 'Mind' – why was it called 'minding'? What kind of a mind did you need for standing behind a shop counter?

Bunty doesn't like the promiscuity of behind-the-counter contact. She feels that she's not really selling dog food and kittens and the occasional budgerigar, but that she's selling herself. At least, she thinks, when she worked for Mr Simon ('Modelia – Ladies' Quality Fashions') it was sensible things they were selling, dresses and corsets and hats. What was sensible about a budgerigar? And, what's more, having to be polite to everyone all the time wasn't normal. (George, on the other hand, is born to it, chatting away, making the same remark about the weather twenty times in one morning, scraping and grovelling and smiling and then ripping off his mask as soon as he comes backstage. The children of shopkeepers – me and Chekhov, for example – are scarred by having witnessed their parents humiliate themselves in this distressing way.)

Bunty decides that she's going to have to say something to George, point out that she's a wife and mother, not a shop assistant. And another thing, where does he go all the time? He's always 'slipping out', off on mysterious errands. There are going to be some changes if Bunty has her way. She sits behind the counter clicking her number nine needles as if she's a tricoteuse at George's guillotine when she should be knitting my future – tiny little things, lacy shawls and matinée jackets with pink ribbons threaded through them. Magic red bootees to see me on my journey. The Shop Cat – a fat, brindled tabby that spends its days squatting malevolently on the counter – jumps up on her lap and she swiftly knocks it to the floor. Sometimes Bunty feels as if the whole world is trying to climb on her body.

'Shop!' George returns. The budgerigars rise up and flutter in their cages.

Shop! Why 'Shop!'? George and Bunty always say this when they come in at the Shop door – but it's supposed to be what the customer says, not the shopkeeper. Are they addressing the shop in the vocative case ('O Shop!') or naming it in the nominative? Reassuring it of its existence? Reassuring themselves of its existence? Pretending to be a customer? But why pretend to be the thing you hate? 'Shop!' I fear, like the thing it signifies, will remain an eternal, existential mystery.


Excerpted from "Behind the Scenes at the Museum"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Kate Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. What do cupboards have to do with the story?

2. More than one reviewer compared Behind the Scenes at the Museum to Tristram Shandy and to the works of Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens. What might these novels have in common? How does Kate Atkinson update or expand upon the earlier books' use of narration and history?

3. One of Atkinson's innovations is her use of footnotes. Why do you think she adopted this non- fiction technique in a novel?

4. Although this novel is very much about a specific time and place, it has been embraced by audiences in twelve countries, in as many languages. What gives Behind the Scenes at the Museum such a universal appeal?

5. What is the meaning of the book's title?

6. What other fictional narrators does Ruby Lennox bring to mind?

7. What does Behind the Scenes at the Museum say about women's roles and opportunities in the family and in the world at large? What do the four generations of women in Ruby's family have in common?

8. Behind the Scenes at the Museum generated controversy in England when a critic called it "anti-family." How would you defend the book against this charge? What other novels, now considered classics, might have had to face this sort of accusation?

Customer Reviews

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book while I was studying abroad in England, and I was just blown away by how wonderful it was. I was laughing out loud from the first page on, and at times I was laughing and crying at the same time. Atkinson writes about the ordinary and the everyday, but with such skill that you get sucked right into Ruby's world and you don't leave until the last page. Trust me, I've read a lot of books, and this is one of the funniest, saddest, most well-written books I've ever read. You'll love it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I brought this book along on our honeymoon to Maui, and as great as the vacation was, this book was even better. I was actually depressed when it ended. A phenomenal writer, Kate Atkinson has a unique gift for character development and storytelling. I have been talking and thinking about this book since I read it in 2000, and have read everything else by the author since. This is what a novel should be.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I adore this book, the plot and characters become so real as you read it, it's impossible not to get pulled in. This is the 2nd Whitbread winner that I've read, and I was definatley not disappointed!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kate Atkinson's mysteries involve far more character development than any others I've read, not in the common form of character descriptions, but through an interior view of her characters' thoughts and personal interactions. In Behind the Scenes at the Museum I found myself drawn into her characters' life stories as much as into the mystery plot. And, as with her other books, I found myself satisfied by a mystery well-solved, but also touched by the sadness and beauty of life I had just experienced through the reading.
AngieJG More than 1 year ago
I read the book from beginning to end. I enjoyed a different writing style from this author. I tend to read very serious historical fiction, so I enjoyed the humor throughout the book (though it was dark humor) I had a difficult time keeping track of all the characters, as the story goes back and forth between generations. I felt I needed a family tree nearby to remind me of who is who. I was left feeling rather melancholy and empty at the end of the book. The novel centers around Ruby, but I feel I never got to know her as an adult. Those important years are skipped over. This is the second novel I have read by Kate Atkinson. I don't think I will read another.
coffee_luvr More than 1 year ago
I started this book because it was a selection through a book club. I read some of the reviews and I was excited to get started on the book, however I was disappointed. I usually don't have problems getting through a book but I really, really had to force myself to finish this one. I put it aside a couple of times to read other selections but decided I had to finish this one. I had a very hard time following the multiple characters that were introduced in the footnote sections where the author flashes back in time to fill in the reader on the history of the family. Although I have read many books that go back and forth in time periods, this one really left me unsure of who was who and how they were related to the main character. I found most of the footnote sections were distracting and didn't help me to understand the current characters any better. The story started to be a bit more interesting to me from chapter 8 (last third of the book) to the end. I ended up skimming the footnote sections in the second third of the book rather than try to figure out how the characters were related. The only foot note sections that helped me understand the story were the ones in the last part of the book. Although it was an interesting and unique way to tell the story about Ruby, I struggled to get through it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Over the summer I decided to read books by authors that combined humor with tragedy. I read so many books that are wonderful but depressive! Anyway, this book really fit the bill. In the beginning, Ruby describes her own birth. She begins to reveal her family history in an innocent sort of way. By the end of the book she is all grown up and an insightful young lady. The journey she takes you on is one that will leave an impression on you. This is perhaps one of my favorite books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not put the book down. I cared about Ruby and what happened to her. What a family! So true to life in many cases. Unusual for me to laugh out loud but I did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author writes in great detail both the semi-exciting and humdrum. I had great expectations for this story from the beginning but it fell a little flat too often for me. There is too much sadness that makes the relatvely good parts of this story get lost. That said, I wanted to finish it and did. I didn't enjoy much of it, but kept reading...much like watching a car wreck.
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lesleynicol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very enjoyable story written in the first person, through the eyes of a woman as she grows from conception to adulthood. I liked the alternating chapters of events firstly through Ruby's eyes and then the footnote chapters explaining what really happened. Much of the book was set in York,England and I really enjoyed revisiting this city.
mcalister on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not at all what I expected -- happily, far, far better. The story flip-flops between the chronological narrative of Ruby's life growing up in York, and brief but non-chronological episodes (interludes, "footnotes") that connect her back to other female members of her family -- primarily her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother -- in ways that are not immediately obvious, but which unfold slowly throughout the book, both delightfully and tragically. Atkinson's prose has both a levity and a gravitas that balances beautifully between hilarity and pathos. A few passages could have profited from editing and compaction, but overall she uses language wonderfully without becoming too overburdened with words.This is a story about history and destiny and the patterns of life, and the ways in which women can choose between living and surviving. Recommended.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From the very beginning Behind the Scenes draws the reader in. Told from the point of view of young Ruby Lennox...(before she is even born) there is humor and sarcasm. Her voice reminds me of the wise-alec baby on Family Guy (sorry, the name escapes me). Ruby is omnipresent, giving the reader insight on every thought, feeling, dream, nightmare her family has. The alternate chapters (told in third person) give the backstory of Ruby's mother's life during the second Great War. The writing is not as humorous, nor as witty as when Ruby gets to speak. Over all the reading is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, twisting you through life's crazy moments.
crimson-tide on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My first Kate Atkinson, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a complex, sweeping tale of four generations with many characters and does require a certain level of concentration to sort them all out and get the most from the story. Having said that, it is told simply and honestly and with great humour, poignancy and insight. Ruby Lennox is a wonderful narrator and her first person sections are aided by the "footnotes" chapters, giving the fascinating family backstory. Not all the characters are likeable and the events in the life of the family are often harsh and even tragic, but it is realistic and makes for a great tale told with much skill. An interesting plot, quirky three dimensional characters, vividly imagined episodes, and good dialogue; what more could one want!An absolutely stunning debut novel.
Greatrakes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book starts in 1951 with Ruby, the protagonist, describing her conception. The family lives above a pet shop, at least until it is burnt down.Ruby takes us back and forth through the generations of her family, often starting a life story with a death. A very funny book.Kate Atkinson is one of the few authors whose books I keep after I've read them, because I know I'll read them again.
EBT1002 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was really a delightful read. The narrator, who starts telling us her (and her family's) story at conception and closes shortly after her mother's death, is charming and witty. The movement between past and present, first- and third-person (it's hard to tell if it's really third person; it seems to be the same narrator but decades before her conception), is very effective. I occasionally had to reference back to page 22 to remind myself of which characters belong in which generation, but that didn't disrupt the flow of the narrative at all. I read this for a TIOLI challenge and will definitely be reading more of Kate Atkinson's work.
mzonderm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
You know it's bad when you go online to see what the big secret is when you're halfway through the book. But that's what I finally had to do with this book. I just got overcome by curiosity. Or possibly driven mad by all the vague hints and innuendo. (And yes, all my suspicions were correct.) If you're looking to find the answer, you'll have to look elsewhere (I suggest Wikipedia), but at least now you know you're not alone in not being able to wait for the big reveal.Aside from all the secrets, this book is populated by a vast and confusing cast of characters. Told in alternating chapters between the life of Ruby Lennox (who narrates her own story from the moment of conception) and the stories of her maternal antecedents (told in the third person), we learn about several generations of women who make bad decisions in marriage and what happens to them as a result. Needless to say, this isn't a particularly cheerful book.
jayne_charles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At the start I found the writing a bit tight, a bit desperate-to-impress, and a little bit weird (how can anyone narrate with authority from the womb?). Things improved, however, and once Atkinson got into her stride I was just happy to be carried along on a tide of superb writing and tumultuous events. The scenes on the way to Scotland, those involving the Scottish/German guesthouse owners, and the wedding were among the funniest I have ever read. Elements of the plot take some swallowing, perhaps, and on reflection I think the author just about got away with it (I suspect others may disagree). In all, it's a rattling good yarn stuffed to bursting with events, anecdotes, humour and tragedy. It was as though Atkinson dredged up every idea she ever had for a story, tipped them all into a sack and gave it a good shake. It amazed me to find, when I read another of her novels, that she actually still had some ideas left over.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It is truly amazing that this is a first novel. It is so smart and funny and British with their seemingly inherent dislike of children. Four generations of Yorkshire women and two world wars pass by in a flurry of storytelling all narrated by the remarkable Ruby Lennox. Ruby starts her story at her conception and upon being brought home from the hospital by her parents to their shabby home above a pet shop, Ruby observes that this is not too promising. She is quite right of course. While her dark humour never lets her down, there is both tragedy and mystery in Ruby's life and the book is at times very sad and moving.Of course Ms Atkinson has gone on to write more wonderful books (sadly I only have one left to read) but there is something very special about this book.
Lman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
With Behind the Scenes at the Museum I am now, out-and-out, an absolute Kate Atkinson fan! This is the second of her books I have read ¿ being much taken with Case Histories I rapidly collected all her books I could find - purposely opting to read this, her debut novel, next. And, despite needing two attempts at starting this book ¿ the story necessitating a certain concentration from the very beginning - I was once again amazed at the talent of this author to weave such a sophisticated tale.Foremost this is the story of Ruby Lennox¿s life; told from her distinct viewpoint and in her unequivocal terms, beginning directly at the moment of her conception and following through many of the significant events of her next forty-or-so years. But as it would not be possible to rightly comprehend her family dynamics from this singular point-of-view, interspersed into the composition are chapters of explanations ¿ designated cleverly as footnotes ¿ accordingly fleshing out past, and sometimes present, crucial circumstances beyond Ruby¿s direct sphere of engagement; enabling the reader to grasp the essence of this somewhat exhaustive arrangement of familial foundation. Consequently, within this context, Ruby reveals to the reader, from her rather odd childhood experiences, and therefore often immature perspective, a picture of family life filled with grit, grief and grand events reflective of the times it depicts. What unfolds is a twisted, elaborate, sweeping epic of the past four generations of Ruby and her family, through two world wars and by way of a Yorkshire emphasis, which evokes extraordinary poignancy, complexity and a comedy of manners difficult to expound in a simple review.And the title¿ at first I was intrigued, as I read more I became confused ¿ what could it mean; at the end I was astounded! The story of this family is a display, the truth carefully hidden behind a curious façade; but like any exhibit at any museum, when the layers are pealed back, what a saga there is to tell. Often it is only when the curator is tasked, to disclose the measures required from `behind the scenes¿ to construct the show, does the true picture emerge. Ruby was, thus, an admirable custodian of this tale!It was hard, at times, to like many of the characters in this chronicle and the stark, often harsh, reality of Ruby¿s existence overwhelmed at others; but the honesty of it all could never be questioned. There were moments of absolute hilarity (the holiday in Scotland comes to mind), and there were times when I ached with despair for Ruby and her family¿s lot; but overall I was compelled to read on to the final act. This is, after all, a story told oft-times from the magical aspect of a child¿s innocence ¿ both the good and the very bad ¿ and it is so well-crafted, and uses such mesmerising imagery and wry discernment that, despite the horrors, and probably due to its rather pragmatic style, I was enchanted and totally enthralled from beginning to end. This book is not at all what I had anticipated ¿ except for the brilliance of the actual writing of the work ¿ and as such, was another totally unexpected delight! And, it was my 50th read for 2008 to boot!
neverlistless on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved it! I have yet to be disappointed by Atkinson. It was really interesting to see how choices and circumstances affect people (and their offspring) down the line.
MariaSavva on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this book about 10 years ago on a friend's recommendation and can remember thinking it was an amazing debut novel at the time. I decided to read it again recently, and had completely forgotten the story and so it was like reading it for the first time. I still think it's a great read and so well written that I still find it hard to believe it was Kate Atkinson's first novel. It's very funny and insightful. The story of Ruby Lennox's life, although sometimes tragic, is told in a very humourous way and it's the type of book that makes you want to carry on reading to the end to find out what happens to everyone as the characters are so well developed and really seem like real people. I would definitely recommend this novel and I think I'll be reading some more of Kate Atkinson's books.
samfsmith on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story of Ruby and her horrific childhood. I didn¿t know whether to laugh or cry as I read this. It¿s dark humor at its best.Ruby narrates her own conception, and the story gets weirder and sadder from there. Atkinson breaks all the rules and gets away with it, which is what good writing is all about. Not only does Ruby narrate her conception, but we are filled in on the lives of her ancestors in chapter-sized footnotes. Obviously things that Ruby could never know, but the reader doesn¿t care. It¿s good writing and it works.There is even a mystery too, which is what you would expect from Atkinson. The solution is revealed in the climax.