Friday, 30 January 2015

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson's first novel is a family portrait spanning four generations of one family, chronicling the mistakes, decisions and adventures of the family's women. It is told mostly from the perspective of Ruby Lennox- she proclaims her conception in 1951 with "I exist!", which is not something you encounter in many novels. Born to a middle class shopkeeping family in York, Ruby spends most of her childhood wondering if she was swapped at birth and suffering the wrath of her older sisters; the bossy, dramatic and spoiled Gillian and the fiery, intense and depressive Patricia. Her mother shows very little interest in her, her father even less.

Recurring themes of this novel include secrets hidden for generations, the untimely deaths of children, family members who disappear from the family and are never heard of again, the recurrence of unhappy marriages, the effect of World Wars on families and people who are thought to have done one thing (historically) actually turning out to have done something else entirely. Secrets are withheld from the reader as Ruby gradually reveals, through disjointed and not-in-chronological-order flashbacks that fill in the bits of her life that she seems not to remember, things she never realised she didn't know and things that she's tried to forget. The novel reminds the reader that even the unlikeliest of people can surprise you, and there's absolutely no guessing what goes on in the minds of others.

I absolutely loved this book. Itr meanders through Australia, Canada and Scotland, spans the 1800s to the 1990s and sees members of the same family subjected to the same tragedies over and over again. Though the pace of the book is quite gentle- there are no big twists or cliffhangers or plot-defining crescendos- it builds to a climax that simply sees four generations' worth of questions answered. Answered for the readers, at least. We still end up knowing more than the Lennoxes do, even collectively. There are mysteries developed throughout the narrative, little question marks that are raised and seeds of doubt and intrigue planted along the way that keep things ticking over.
It really enforces the idea that personal history is core to the adult that a person becomes. History (of York) and history (of the Lennoxes) is the backbone of the novel.

I loved Ruby- so frank and honest, melodramatic and as a result pretty hilarious. It's hard to tell how the traumatic events she's lived through have affected her, she recounts them in a way sometimes droll and sometimes light and breezy. I loved her descriptions of her family- scathing but instantly conjuring her relatives the way she saw them herself.

For a first novel, even a first novel of somebody that turned out to be as prolific and as celebrated as Kate Atkinson, it's very accomplished and pretty ambitious. Postmodern and unsentimental about having a miserable, unlamented family that are prone to removing themselves from the genepool. Despite the narrative being mixed up in terms of its chronology, the gaps that are pointed out and filled, she always maintains a sense of continuity. The reader is never lost. There are elements that surface and resurface over the generations, reminding us that life is a circle that goes on and on- the locket, the rabbit's foot. A clock, some china- bits and bobs that become symbols of the family.

Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable and very much recommended.

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