Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A confident and exuberant first novel charts the progress of a family though war and peace. It's a novel to settle into or it's difficult to grasp who's who, but it repays the effort handsomely. It's a book to buy and keep as it will deserve a second reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 381 Date: January 1996
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 0552996181

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Bunty Lennox had never wanted to marry George but after the war he was all that was left. By the night that Ruby is conceived (rather grudgingly, on her part, it has to be said) she already has two children, the sensible but rather-distant Patricia and unpredictable and difficult Gillian. George isn't a lot of help - quite the reverse, in fact. On the night that Ruby is born he's in a pub in Doncaster explaining to a lady in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he's not married. Bunty's not much of a mother either and spends most of the time wishing that the children were elsewhere and that she was anywhere but the flat above the pet shop in the shadow of York Minster.

It's Ruby who narrates the story of the Lennox family, starting with the moment of her conception and through into her adult life. She makes detours along the way - footnotes she calls them - to explain the history behind the story, starting from the moment at the end of the nineteenth century when a travelling French photographer captured Alice, Ruby's great-grandmother, and her children. It was an event which was to affect the family for a century.

Kate Atkinson obviously loves all her characters. As I read I felt that she was not so much writing about them as directing them. I've rarely encountered a novel where even relatively minor characters are so well-developed. It's no exaggeration to say that by the end of the book I felt that I knew them all intimately. I couldn't help wanting to know what happened to them next and even weeks after finishing the book I still think about them. The book appears to be about Ruby Lennox, but for me the main character was her mother, Bunty. On the surface she appears to be nothing more than a rather poor parent, but she emerges as a complex character, shaped by circumstances and her own less-than-perfect parents.

I thought, at first, that I wasn't going to like this novel. The story switches back and forth over the years and although it might not have a cast of thousands, it's certainly more populated with characters than most novels. It's littered with births and at one point the deaths come one on top of another. I had difficulty in fathoming relationships and wished that there was a family tree to help, but this would have given away too much of the story. It's not a book to pick up and put down. The first few chapters really do require some concentrated reading. After that the chances are that you won't be able to put it down.

The plot is excellent. It's meticulously constructed with a neat twist in the tail. Beyond a certain point it's fairly obvious what the twist is going to be. It doesn't matter though, because you'll be so engrossed in the individual characters that you'll want to know what happens to them all. There's a lot of detail in the story and a good number of sub-plots as well as the main story line. I couldn't fault the plot in any way.

Atkinson has a keen ear for dialogue. She has lived in York and the local dialect is captured perfectly. Conversations are colourful and natural, with an exuberant flow to them. Local knowledge is obvious too in the way that the city of York is portrayed. It's a place I knew well over the second half of the twentieth century and it was brought back to me perfectly, even down to the fact that the two rivers in York have different colours - the Fosse is green and rather dank whilst the Ouse is dark and faster-flowing.

This is definitely a book to buy and keep. The writing is close to perfection and I don't think there's a superfluous word in the book. It's one that I'll be reading again and it's unlikely to date. Amazingly it's Atkinson's first novel and I'm going to look for some of her other work. I was put in mind of Maggie O'Farrell's After You'd Gone which was also a debut novel and I just hope that Atkinson's later work is not as disappointing as O'Farrell's.

Buy Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson at Amazon.com.


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judy_b said:

I read this years ago when it first came out - it's hard to remember it in detail but it has always stood as one of my favourite novels I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Another very similar novel and possibly one with a slight edge on 'Behind the Scenes' is Stand We at Last by Zoe Fairbairns.

Sue said:

Thanks for that, Judy - that's another one to go on the 'must look out for' list!

Judy Docketty said:

Having already read 2 of her novels (Human Croquet and Case Histories), I was very keen to read another. I was not disappointed. It it probably the best novel I have ever read and enjoyed it enormously from start to finish. Although in places the novel is quite tragic, it also contains laugh out loud comic observations of everyday life. Fantastic!