Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is really a very good book, marred by one gimmick that frustrates me because it's so unnecessary to the story Kate Atkinson is telling.

For the most part, however, I enjoyed this one immensely. Atkinson has a knack for turns of phrase that are amusing and piercing and unexpected, and I loved these in particular. The story is meandering, and weaves back and forth in time, but it was the sort of meander I greatly enjoy.

This is a story about uneasy relationships between daughters and mothers, and husbands and wives. I don't think there's a happy marriage to be seen. Or a mother-daughter relationship that isn't fraught with tension.

The main character, Ruby, starts to narrate her life before she is even born (which the later gimmick makes quite unlikely), and from the very beginning, it is clear that motherhood and housewifery are far from her mother, Bunty's, vocation. We're not really sure what Bunty's vocation might have been, but this isn't it.

Bunty herself has an adversarial relationship with her husband, who she feels trapped her into a life of domestic and retail servitude, and not a close connection to her mother. Her mother, Nell, lost two fiances and a brother in the war, and married shortly thereafter, to a man who was never her first choice. Her own mother, Alice, was never present, and the reasons for that are unveiled slowly through the novel. (This long reveal works. Another doesn't.)

As a look at domestic life, and tension within these British working-class families in the 20th century, this book sparkles. And the characters are rich and vivid. Ruby and her sisters, Gillian and Patricia, are not precious, are not particularly cute, are volatile and crabby and human. They don't act like little girls in books. They are selfish, and loving, and distant, and bossy. At different times, and each sister is memorable.

There are hints, though, of another sister, a twin to Ruby. And this would have been fine if, say Pearl had died as a baby, or before Ruby could remember her, although Ruby's narration of her life before she was born through her birth makes this a bit of a difficult sell. But no, Pearl lived until she was four, and Ruby has amnesia about not only her death, but her entire existence. This I didn't like at all. It felt gimmicky, and most frustratingly of all, unnecessary. This is a damned good book. It didn't need this kind of gimmick. It adds little to the story except a difficulty in the suspension of my disbelief.

This issue aside, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Atkinson's authorial voice, and the book as a whole. I just wish there wasn't this jarring addition to the last third of the novel that was distracting and superfluous.


  1. I have been under a rock - what is the new policy now that Goodreads is owned by Google?

  2. By Amazon. There were two, one official, one sort of unofficial, unevenly applied, and very troubling. The official one was the new pronouncement that you can't talk about authors in reviews, and was applied very heavy-handedly, with, initially, a bunch of reviews deleted without notice. While I agree that Goodreads can't allow libellous reviews, as far as I'm concerned, reviews that take into consideration what the reviewer knows of the author and how that has affected what they read, are fair game.

    But far more troubling was the reaction to the dissent that occurred after the first rule change was implemented. The powers-that-be at Goodreads/Amazon started to go after protest reviews, deleting them for being "off-topic," an unofficial guideline change that was never properly defined, and the limits of which were never delineated. This, essentially saying they could delete anything they wanted, if they so chose, by deeming it off-topic, was what really drove me away.

    They have backed off both of these policies now, presumably realizing how much damage they were doing to their own site. But it has never been addressed, and they've never posted anything to open a dialogue, or to bring forward this troubling new "off-topic" rule and set down guidelines for what it means and how it will be applied. Which leaves it hanging as this arbitrary hammer.

    So, all in all, it left a sour taste in my mouth, and a feeling that Goodreads wasn't my online home anymore. So I'm still taking my reviews off, one-by-one, even though this controversy hasn't actively flared in months. If at any point they'd said they screwed up and wanted to open discussions about what had happened, and how they'd decided on these rules and how they wanted to implement them in the future, been transparent about them, then I would probably have changed my mind.

    That was long. Sorry!

  3. Just finished the book, end up on your review.
    Liked the book and review.

    For me, the Amnesia things worked fine. May be it is because I have guessed it at the moment when they send Ruby to live with her aunt. I knew that some thing has killed someone, but not who. Then there are lots of hint.
    But is not that card important in the whole book. The family dynamics of Lennox family has highly depends on that event.
    The divorce, Patricia's guilt, Gillian's hate towards Ruby, and the knot relation of Ruby with her mother.