Behind the Scenes at the Museum was Yorkshire mother of two, Kate Atkinson's first novel and this wonderful book it is definitely one to be celebrated.
Kate Atkinson was born in York and she chose the old walled City as the location for the tale of teenage Ruby Lennox and her family. The book starts from the moment of Ruby's conception in 1951, a moment grudgingly obliged by her mother, Bunty. Ruby starts the tale as a growing foetus, a baby inside her mother's womb. Boy, it sure did start to get uncomfortable in there after nine months, there sure wasn't a lot of room. Ruby was pushed into the world while her father George was in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster telling a women wearing a D-cup that he wasn't married.
Ruby tells the story of her family exploring complex family relationships, births, weddings, divorce, death, secrets and lies. She spends her childhood trying to placate her mother and playing with elder sister's Gillian and Patrica, under the shadow of the Minister, as they trundle along the old pebble-stone streets and in and out of the pet shop, the family business.
When she is just 5 Ruby is whisked away to stay with her Auntie Babs. She has no idea why, although she's sure that it's not a holiday. She has nightmares and begins to sleepwalk. When she returns no explanation is offered and her mother seems even more unhappy….
Atkinson divides Behind the Scenes at the Museum into Chapters and Footnotes: the Chapters focus on Ruby and her direct family life with her mother and father and her sisters. The Footnotes tie up unexplained information mentioned within the chapters, exploring the history of her family over the previous two generations further, starting with Ruby's great-grandmother Alice, who supposedly died giving birth. Although I liked the footnotes as a unique style of writing, they can cause the reader to lose the thread of the story somewhat, particularly if you are reading slowly.
The book is fluently written and poetic throughout. It is imaginative, thought provoking, hearth warming and funny. A lovely example of the poetic style of the story comes from Ruby's theory of the afterlife. She believes there must be a Lost Property Cupboard where all things we have ever lost have been kept for us - every button, every tooth, every lost library book and spare pen. Lost tempers and patience and innocence and the dreams we forget on waking…. A beautiful analogy.
As for the ending, it is unexpected and shocking, cleverly tying together previous events, fitting together the pieces of the puzzle.
I loved this book and I give it five stars. It is likely to be preferred by the ladies than the gents, although it is suitable for any ages. At 380 pages the book is a nice length, not too long but allowing time for the reader to get to know the characters and to understand Ruby's situation. It is a very British book, exploring life in the middle classes and if you are British, especially if you live in York, or the North, you simply must read it.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum was published in 1995 and it subsequently won the Whitbread prize for book of the year The novel also appears on the 2003 BBC Big Read at number 142.
Poor Ruby. Does anyone ever say that? No they don't. But they should and by the end of this book you will agree….