Book #07

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

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.

Ruby Lennox begins the story of her life at her conception, as her mother pretends to sleep and her father refuses to be put off. We’d be forgiven for thinking we were in for a chronological account of Ruby’s travails, yet Atkinson chooses to dig much more deeper than ‘just Ruby’.

We read of Ruby’s development amongst a household lacking in emotion and tenderness, and can begin to put together the origins of this by being allowed to see into the past. Atkinson shows us the life of the family, spanning the majority of a century. Taking the form of chapter-long footnotes, we hear of everyone related to Ruby, from great-grandmother Alice, grandmother Nell, and mother Bunty. These vignettes are not presented in a linear format, and it does take a bit of work to keep track of the multitudes of family members and their secrets, but it makes for an interesting and engaging journey through time.

And isn’t that just how we learn our family stories? In short sharp bursts, out of sync with anything in the present day, apart from something popping into someone’s mind before the entire tale unravels.

What’s interesting are the number of half-truths which accumulate over such a long period of time. Yes, all families have secrets, but this one seems to turn their secrets and lies into their own version of folklore. This allows us a glorious journey as we see each of these myths uncovered to their stark realities, and see the maggots crawling underneath. 

Equally interesting is seeing history repeating itself throughout generations. The same mistakes are made, the same behaviours adopted and ingrained, the same outcomes repeat themselves. It’s an interesting commentary on how attitudes and habits can be learned from others, and on how, despite progress and modernity, the impact of certain choices can remain the same, whether these choices were made in 1914, or 1970.

This is a gorgeous and slow meander through these lives. That piecemeal way stories come out, the realisations we come to as we grow older, the truly voyeuristic feeling of delving into someone else’s familial experience and obligation. There’s a lot of praise I could heap on this, a lot of things I’d like to comment on, but I feel I’ve said enough. I truly loved it.