A review of ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ by Kate Atkinson
Can you keep a secret? Most authors can, often the plots of novels depend on them. A writer polishing her first book told me that in her next novel nobody would have secrets from anybody; it was too stressful remembering what each character knew and who they were keeping secrets from.
I have just finished reading ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ by Kate Atkinson; I have been wanting to catch up with it for ages after recommendations from friends. It won the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. Kate Atkinson is well know for tossing her chapters and pages in the air and allowing them to settle in any order, or at least that is how it feels to readers. Like Marmite, readers love or hate her writing. The tutor at our writing group has several times set us an exercise to write in ‘Kate Atkinson Style’. I love her style and enjoyed the challenge.
‘Behind the Scenes…’ was her first novel and must have broken lots of ‘rules’ at the time. She darts between times and lives. I read this as a paperback on buses, trains and in the waiting room at the dentist, no way to treat a good novel, but dipping in and having to hastily put the book away in the middle of a good bit suits the spirit of the novel.
Kate Atkinson keeps secrets from her readers and from her main character Ruby Lennox. We follow Ruby from the moment of her conception… ‘I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight’ and by the time she is a week old she has decided Bunty is a poor choice of mother. Writing from a child’s point of view is tricky, but Atkinson achieves an excellent narrative. As the youngest in the family Ruby has many secrets kept from her including the big one that readers can only vaguely guess at. What adds to the delight of the novel is that Ruby is the only one who knows the future, sees when characters are making mistakes they will regret for the rest of their lives, knows when characters are about to have their lives cut short.
A novel that breaks rules, too many characters, too many sub plots, a whole century of history and family dramas packed into 382 paperback pages; I’m sure I’ve missed the plot in parts, but this is a novel I’m happy to go back to and begin again.