Behind the Scenes at the Museum

By Kate Atkinson

34,564 ratings - 3.96* vote

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets.

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Book details

Paperback, 336 pages
Original Title
Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Violet wells

"As a family, we are genetically disposed towards having accidents."

First and foremost, this is a challenging ambitious book, more so than Life after Life. The narrative is a labyrinth of twists and turns, false trails, loops and double helixes. There’s also an awful lot to remember because for some time it isn’t obvious which details or even characters are paramount and which stuffing. It covers four generations of a family – from WW1 almost to the present day.

On the surface it’s a tragi-comedy, a family saga, primarily narrated by Ruby Lennox, born in the 1950s. You could though say it’s a gradual debunking of family mythology to find deeper more consequential truths. All families have their mythologies – anecdotes or opportunistic fabrications that play the historian’s role in simplifying and sanitising the official story. That these anecdotes are often a form of deliberate mystification or downright evasive lies on the part of one individual we all know (or suspect) from our own families. The series currently on TV about Bloomsbury is an example of taking mythology at face value and presenting it as the whole truth. It’s one reason why the series is so wooden and bloodless. Because the writer has failed utterly to imaginatively penetrate the various anecdotes that have come to (erroneously) define Bloomsbury – so we have Virginia Woolf as some dessicated twittering bundle of nerves who’s frigid and socially barely able to string a coherent sentence together.
What Atkinson does is to lay down first the mythology – often created by parents who don’t want their children to know certain shameful truths – and then slowly peel off that outer crust. Individual memory is continually altering collective memory. The (often opportunistic) nature of memory is a central theme. And memory is often shown to reside in the secret history of objects, all of which Atkinson describes and utilises brilliantly as cyphers of more enduring truths than the fabrications created by the adult world for children. She plays all these memory games with an ingenious series of chapters known as “footnotes”. (She also lays down a mirroring impression of York itself as a city haunted by phantoms and mythologies).

Ruby’s mother Bunty is the fulcrum of the novel – the reservoir in which all the family memories have collected but she is not a reliable historian because of the severely disciplined (or repressed) nature of her emotions so when she loses her memory to dementia there is the sense that Ruby is finally free of the spurious shackles of her family history.

This is one of those novels that becomes more ingenious the more you think about it. I didn’t always enjoy it while reading it (one problem I had was that my sense of humour doesn’t quite chime with Atkinson’s which can verge on slapstick at times). There’s also so little tenderness in the book. It’s a rather brittle grey heartless world Atkinson depicts. Mothers do not love their children or their husbands. Children often don’t like their siblings. (The tone is anything but bleak though; almost it's lighthearted even when touching on tragic events. This is one of the clever quirks of this novel. It should be bleak but it manages to be exuberant often.)
There’s also a huge cast of characters and I found it virtually impossible to retain memory of them all. And a number of clever plotting tricks that continually knock you out of your sense of being able to easily follow the narrative. As a reading experience I would have given it three stars but, as I said, only now am I beginning to understand its complexities of design and intent. I have this overriding feeling it’s a novel that will reveal more of its brilliant ingenuity on a second reading.

There’s also one of the best descriptions of Italian spoken in anger I’ve ever come across when it’s described as being embroidered in blood.

David

God, I can't even begin to express my depth of loathing for this book. I forced myself through to within about 60 pages of the end, but then I just couldn't bear it any more. I just didn't want to know any more about the vile people in this ridiculous family with all their dark, dirty, entirely predictable secrets.

Gaaaah! I left it behind on a plane somewhere. Should have attached a toxic warning label.

PattyMacDotComma

4.5★ (January 2018)
“At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep - as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.”

And this, dear reader, is how we meet Ruby Lennox. During her life, she often announces herself by calling out “It’s just Ruby!”, but she’s often addressed as “ShutupRuby!” She tells her family’s story in the first person, and mixed with her earliest memories (admittedly a lot earlier than any of mine, or, I daresay, yours) are many other people. Lots of other people. Lots and lots of other people. And they’re all related, one way or another. Or would be, if they’d married as intended.

Ruby is speaking “today” about her past and the present, while the others’ stories are told in the third person by the author. We always know when it’s Ruby, but my goodness I get my mothers and grand-mothers and great-aunts and not-really-aunts-but-probably-father’s-floozy mixed up! It’s not that they aren’t described well. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much back story that I start following that thread and losing the main one.

Reading Atkinson is like looking through someone’s photograph album with them and as they get to a group picture, they point to someone in the back row and say (this is me talking, not Atkinson) “Oh, that’s Eve! I must tell you about her. She was such a character and my cousin Adam absolutely adored her and would do anything for her. In fact, once when they were in this garden, she found an apple tree and . . . “

And there’s a long, drawn-out story that recurs now and then about them and their children who used to play with someone else’s children and they all grew up and went off to war, except for the poor sickly one who died of diphtheria, that was so sad, and . . . I get so caught up in that story that I completely lose track of what relationship the original person in the photo had to do with Ruby (or her people), that I forget where I was.

But it almost doesn’t matter. I don’t remember if she’s writing about WW1 or WW2, except that the trenches were One and the aerial dogfights were Two, and “we” (Ruby’s family) lost people in both of them, although I couldn’t tell you who was lost in which one.

War is a major backdrop to some sections. Some boyfriends and would-be fiancés march off, never to return. Atkinson reduces the cast numbers by a chap here or there, but she also gives us some unintended pregnancies here or there, so life goes on.

“Bunty had great hopes for the war; there was something attractive about the way it took away certainty and created new possibilities. Betty said it was like tossing coins in the air and wondering where they would land - and it made it much more likely that something exciting would happen to Bunty and it didn't really matter whether it was the unbelievably handsome man or a bomb - it would all mean a change in one way or another.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that the author found this to be true of war as well. It would make something happen.

“In the end, Bunty's war had been a disappointment. She lost something in the war but she didn't find out until it was too late that it was the chance to be somebody else. Somewhere at the back of Bunty's dreams another war would always play - a war in which she manned searchlights and loaded ack-acks, a war in which she was resourceful and beautiful, not to mention plucky and where 'String of Pearls' played endlessly in the de Grey Rooms as a succession of unbelievably handsome officers whirled Bunty off into another life.”

Atkinson did write a novel called Life After Life, which was perhaps inspired by Bunty’s dreams, who knows?

This was her first novel, and what a wonderful and convoluted story it is. I love the writing, the descriptions, and the characters – some stoic, some comic, some quite mad. Not a one of them is boring. I just wish I could keep the generations straight!

An example of her writing that I enjoy:

“She pushes her hair back from her forehead in a centuries old genetic gesture of suffering. The life of a woman is hard and she'll be damned if anyone is going to rob her of her sainthood.”

Another:

“. . . he was looking at the night sky above him, spread out like an astronomer's map. And then a wave of blackness crept slowly across the sky as somebody rolled up the map."


I just wish there were a cast of characters and a big family tree, neighbours included, for people like me. I'd have given it five stars if I'd had that!

[Read and reviewed Jan 2018. I mention that because Goodreads sometimes mixes up the dates.]

Elaine

I really enjoyed this read but am finding it very hard to review without it making me sound like a rambling old biddy. There are so many things I liked about that are running through my head like little soundbites, but I can’t seem to write anything coherent about it. But I will try.

Ruby Lennox is narrating the story of her life, from the moment of her conception, through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Her narration is at times funny, at others sad and moving, but she has a very wry witty voice and is sometimes extremely scathing about other members of her family. I wasn’t quite 100% sure about the concept of her being able to describe her life from the point of conception, but I went with the flow and really enjoyed it in the end, particularly the way she talked about what was going to happen to members of her family in the future, dropping little hints to me about their fates which kept me glued to the book.

Her story is punctuated by footnotes (in the form of chapters) which go on to describe more of her family history, going right back to her great grandmother Alice, her grandmother Nell and mother Bunty. These footnotes can be a little confusing at first – they are not told in chronological order and focus on quite a number of characters, but they do help create a vivid picture of a family over the course of the 20th century. It is not until you get to the end of the book that all these footnotes come together with the main story to give you the full picture of the family, long hidden secrets, closet skeletons and all.

The non chronological retelling did take a little getting used to, but once I did, it felt quite natural. After all, how many times has someone said “Did I ever tell you about your uncle so-so, he died in a car crash?” In reality, we don’t build up knowledge of our family in chronological order either. It is built up of snippets released to us over time.

I wouldn’t exactly call them dysfunctional but they are certainly unusual. In each generation it is the mother who is the focal point of the story and, with the exception of Alice, we see them growing up, marrying, having children and each one coming to the realisation that they are not living the life they intended to live. I have to say that I found each woman more likeable as a child and tended to go off them as they grew older and embittered. They each seemed to lose their warmth and turned into cold, bitter women who struggled to show love or, indeed, any real happiness. The question that really burned in my mind was “would Ruby follow the pattern laid down by previous generations, or will she find the contentment in life that the others lacked?”

It is a really cracking, meandering in a good way read about a family and its skeletons in its closets, stuffed full with little scenes of a family history that will stay with me. The one thing that I do want to say, without spoiling the read for anyone else is – the dogs, the dogs, the dogs. There were a couple of times when I was reading the book and just had to lean over and give my little dog an extra fuss and love.

Megan Baxter

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.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the recent changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

Ian

A novel that for me started off promisingly, floundered a bit in the middle, before finishing with a flourish. It’s difficult to translate that to a rating. For most of the book I was thinking in terms of a 3-star rating but the ending pushed it up to a 3.5, which I’ve rounded up to four.

I also found it quite difficult to categorise the book. Basically it’s a family saga with a fair amount of black humour added in. The narrator is one Ruby Lennox, born in 1952, who provides the first chapter of the book from inside the womb. The other main character is Ruby’s mother Berenice, known as Bunty, but the book also alternates Ruby and Bunty’s timeline with flashbacks to earlier generations of their family, mainly though not exclusively featuring the women. The author does this through an unusual technique. A few pages into each chapter of Ruby’s narration there is a reference to a footnote, which takes you to the story of the earlier generation. Initially I wasn’t sure how to react to these. Was I meant to read the footnote straight away or wait until the end of the chapter? In the end I chose the latter option and found it worked well enough.

As a family saga, the novel is very much the tale of an unhappy family. The men are mostly either drunkards and/or philanderers. The women are not exactly selfless either. One abandons her children, others resent them. Siblings are cruel to one another etc, etc. It’s one of those novels with few if any attractive characters. Some of the verbal humour is good, even very good, but the novel also contains some farce/slapstick humour which didn’t appeal to me.

All in all, a mixed bag, but I really liked the ending, which left me with a favourable impression.

Maciek

Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995, beating such heavyweights as Salman Rushdie and his The Moor's Last Sigh. Behind the Scenes at the Museum us ab ambitious book: a sprawling saga which spans decades of events and covers several generations of characters.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum opens with the birth of its all-seeing narrator, Ruby Lennox, who begins her narration literally from conception (the first chapter begins with Ruby proclaiming "I exist! at the exact moment). The novel consists of 13 chapters, in each of which Ruby describes life of the Lennoxes, a middle-class English family from York, and their life in post-war Britain from 1951 to 1992. Each chapter is followed by a footnote, which consists of events being narrated from another perspective - Ruby's mother, Bunty, Nell, her grandmother, and the great grandmother, Alice. These footnotes - although non-chronological - provide additional information for certain characters' decisions, and explain some of the mysteries concerning missing relatives or family treasures.

With its large cast of characters and extensive timeline, Behind the Scenes at the Museum is also a social history of England in miniature, with the various Lennoxes and their acquaintances standing in for the ordinary people of Britain before, during, and after the War. Although Ruby is a charming and funny narrator, the story she tells is anything but - people make poor choices and suffer the consequences, dreaming of what might have been (such as Ruby's mother, Bunty, who is unhappy in her marriage to George, her father). Personal relationships are bleak and unfulfilling in this novel, and there are many deaths - both of people and animals. It's full of humor, but not in a funny ha-ha sort of way, but funny sad.

Still, it's a first novel and it shows. The amount of characters to keep track of is huge - we've got mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces...as the book progresses it becomes more and more difficult to keep track of them all, which is why a family tree included in each copy would be very helpful. With the introduction of each character the novel lost a bit of its initial momentum - Ruby's enthusiastic "I exist!", a proclamation of the beginning of something important and extraordinary turned into "I exist", a mundane and ordinary existence, filled with unhappiness and lost opportunities, where we're laughing only not to cry. Still, with each new character introduced and another unhappy relationship served on my plate I haven't either laughed or cried - because frankly, my dears, I ceased to give a damn.

Kim


My only experience of Kate Atkinson's writing until now has been three of the four novels in her Jackson Brodie series, which starts with Case Histories. Quirky is the obvious adjective to describe Atkinson's writing. It has lots of dry humour and sardonic wit, intricate plotting and random connections and coincidences deliberately used to advance the narrative. There's a certain flippancy in the tone which brings into sharp relief the often very serious themes with which Atkinson deals.

This is not a mystery novel, although it does have a mystery element. It's the story of Ruby Lennox, commencing with her conception and birth, which Ruby narrates*. I really love Ruby, who is smart, funny and insightful. Part of Ruby's charm, particularly when she is small, is her adult and very knowing voice. However, this is not just Ruby's story. At the end of each chapter dealing with Ruby's life is another chapter - a "footnote" - which deals with episodes in the life of Ruby's mother Bunty, her grandmother Nell and her great-grandmother Alice. The novel becomes a tale of dysfunctional families, of women who make poor choices when they marry and of difficult relationships between mothers and daughters. In the inter-linking of the stories of these women and the shifts backwards and forwards in time, the meaning of the title becomes clear. The "footnotes" explain things which the characters don't know about their past: the reason for a particular expression on the face of Ruby's great-grandmother in a family portrait, where an heirloom locket comes from, where an ancestor who disappeared actually went to. These are the mysteries which exist in all families. In addition to being a family history, there's also a sense in which this novel is a social history of 20th century England and in particular of the experiences of ordinary people during World War I and World War II.

Although the tone of the novel is generally light-hearted because of the way Ruby tells her story, most of the events it narrates are extremely sad. There are lots of deaths - including deaths of children and animals. The relationships between wives and husbands and between parents and children are far from ideal and very few of the characters lead happy or fulfilled lives. But for all that, this is a book which made me laugh a lot. It's probably one of the funniest sad books I've ever read.

This was Atkinson's first novel and it shows. I see it as having two major and one minor weakness. The first of the major weaknesses is that it's very difficult to keep track of all of the characters in each generation. There's not just Ruby, her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother to keep track of; Ruby's sisters, her aunts, uncles, cousins, and the sisters and brothers of her grandmother all make an appearance. A list of characters at the front would have saved me from confusion. The second major weakness is that the narrative lost momentum towards the end and took too long to be resolved. A minor weakness is that Ruby's behaviour as a child sometimes was not always consistent with her chronological age and her POV intruded into a "footnote" where it didn't belong.

Overall, this was a good read and I enjoyed sharing the reading experience with my friend Jemidar. Funny, sad, moving and poignant, the novel has lots going for it - notwithstanding its flaws - and deserves a low four stars. However, it's not a novel for everyone. Reading the first chapter will confirm whether or not Atkinson's style appeals.

*An allusion to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: Atkinson acknowledges this by having one of the characters read excerpts of the novel to her sister.

Lorna

Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a magnificently constructed tale of four generations of women in a Yorkshire family spanning the twentieth century as narrated by Ruby Lennox. This glorious book by Kate Atkinson begins with Ruby relating the precise moment of her conception to the ringing of the chimes at midnight on the clock on the mantlepiece belonging to her great-grandmother Alice. Each chapter is followed by a comprehensive footnote or subchapter giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the history of the family and the events we have just witnessed, thus giving one more insight and preventing one from being totally lost. Because there are parts of this book when you just need to trust and hang on.

When I discovered Kate Atkinson several years ago, falling in love with her book Life After Life, I began to read everything she has written, including the wonderful Jackson Brodie series but somehow overlooking her debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. There is a reason that Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite contemporary British authors and the fact that this fabulous multi-layered book was her first novel, is simply amazing. It is one that I will definitely read again.

"Why does nobody notice how unhappy I am? Why does nobody comment on my bizarre behavior--the recurring bouts of sleepwalking that still erupt from time to time, when I wander the house, indeed very much like a little ghost-child, one that is searching futilely for something it's left behind in the corporeal world. (A toy? A playmate? Its heart desire?) Then there's the inertia--lying lifelessly on my bed for hour after hour, doing nothing and apparently thinking nothing either."

"In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that construct a world that makes sense."

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