Author:
• Friday, September 29th, 2017
Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951. She first went to a private preparatory school before moving to Queen Anne Grammar School for Girls in York, where her parents ran a medical and surgical supplies shop. After graduating from school, she left home to study English literature at Dundee University in Scotland. Following her masters degree in 1974, she researched a postgraduate doctorate on American Literature but failed her PhD oral (viva voce) presentation. She taught at Dundee before taking several jobs throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, including working as a chambermaid in order to survive with her two daughters.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum, Kate Atkinson’s first novel, was published in 1995 and won the 1995 Whitbread Book Of the Year Award. It was such a big success that it has been adapted for radio, theatre and television, of which Atkinson wrote the screen-play herself. It was labelled at the time of its publication by the press as an “anti-family” novel. Nonetheless, it was a bestseller in many countries and was translated into several languages.

Kate Atkinson is a short-story writer, a playwright and a novelist. She has received several awards for her work and was awarded an MBE (Member Of The British Empire) in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list. She now lives in Edinburgh in Scotland.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum begins with the brief statement of the eccentric, witty, Ruby Lennox: “I exist!”, after her conception at midnight in 1951. Ruby Lennox is born into an English middle-class family and is the youngest member of the Lennox brood. She is the main character and narrator of this family saga.

Her father, George, is a philanderer and her mother, Bunty, who is bitter and resentful about her marriage, daydreams about how her life could have been with another, better husband. The tyrannical Bunty is void of emotions save irritability.

Ruby has two sisters, the plain-looking, rebellious and melancholy, Patricia and the headstrong, manipulative, self-centred, bad-tempered, Gillian. They all live in an apartment above their parents’ pet shop in York in England.

The story that Ruby recounts with great lucidity and British black-humour, despite several tragic deaths occurring, goes briefly over the two world wars and extensively over the history of her family. She relates her mother’s unhappy, disappointing married life, her grandmother and going back as far as her 19th century great-grandmother, the beautiful, delicate, Alice who leaves her husband and young children along with the countryside life and poverty and runs off with an itinerant French photographer.

Three generations of women seeking happiness and freedom from their servile, suffocating matrimonial life. Marriages which were contracted more for convenience than for love or any kind of attraction. All the women in the novel dream of a better life. Ruby draws accurate lively images of the trials and tribulations of the dozens of her characters.

The author intertwines past and present events, going back and forth in time by adding footnotes, not necessarily in chronological order, between the chapters. An original technique of narration. She also describes the different, sometimes awkward, relationships between the characters as well as the recurrent patterns of unhappy marriages that seem to run in the family over the decades, explaining that the present demeanour of some member of the family takes its roots in the past.

After their parents’ death – father George, having had a heart attack following sex with a waitress at a family party, and mother Bunty’s demise in 1992, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Patricia and Ruby, who have been dissatisfied with their own lives and are now adults and with children of their own, decide to break their family’s recurrent, ill-fated pattern for the sake of future generations of the family.

Behind The Scenes At The Museum is a multi-layered story, not lacking sharpness nor surprises and revealing a well-kept secret towards the end, discretely hinted at in various parts of the novel.

This family saga is presented in a form of “shambolic”, fragmented accumulation of memories. Atkinson claims that her novel is not autobiographical. In one of her interviews she becomes emotional when talking about several similarities between the novel and her own childhood. She mentions her recollection of growing up the same way as her protagonist in the centre of York, above her parent’s shop.

Atkinson says: “The novel is a hymn to my relationship with the city, constructed out of history, memory and nostalgia”. As for the title of the novel, she says that after writing a few chapters, she dreamt that while she was alone, wandering and frightened in the dark in the rooms of the Castle Museum in York, “objects sprang into life”. Upon awaking, she decided “that dream was called Behind The Scenes At the Museum” and said to herself: “of course, that’s what the novel should be called”.

 

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Category: Book Reviews
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