Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

DSCF1381Behinds the Scenes At the Museum is one of those books that I have seen continually in shops and online, yet have heard very little about. That’s not to say that it’s a book which is not read often; quite the contrary. The author, Kate Atkinson, has won numerous awards for her first book, and I often find it on various reading lists. Yet despite this, my knowledge of the books plot was severely limited, and I went into the reading experience with barely any expectations except that of a book that would be well written.

Whilst the book is narrated by Ruby Lennox, a middle class girl living in York, it is essentially a family saga which spans the length of her family, particularly the women within it. From her great-grandmother at the end of the nineteenth century, right up to the events of Ruby’s own life, the book looks at the events the family face as a whole, as well as the shared history these family members have.

One of the thoughts which has been left within me after reading this book is the fact that there is not really a plot as such. Whilst Ruby is our narrator and we are told certain events both from her life and those of past family members, the book does not necessarily read as something which is linear. This is because of the many flashbacks of the past which occur in no particular chronological order. Whilst there is certainly drama within this family history, there is not really one pivotal moment from which I can look back at the book, and neither is there a clear way to explain to someone what happens within the book. Whilst I suppose this is probably true of many family histories if they were to be retold, as a reader I was a bit frustrated, and sometimes slightly bored, as I read the book feeling that nothing was really happening.

The characters themselves I found to be well written and to be extremely realistic in their  speech and actions. Kate Atkinson clearly has a talent for depicting  British family life, and there were many moments within the novel of interactions between the characters, particular that of Ruby’s parents, Bunty and George, which felt very organic. I could almost imagine the conversations and arguments playing themselves out in real life. I particularly liked the fact that the author in no way shied away from the flawed representations of family life.  Yet this novel was also a contradiction for me. Whilst I feel that the depiction of characters was accurate and realistic, I did not feel any sort of attachment to any of them.  Good writing aside, I personally felt as if the book was missing any real heart, and I wished for some sort of emotions to get me further involved in the book.

Perhaps a large part of the distance I felt for the characters was the fact that it follows so many different people, and whilst Ruby is given the most representation, I felt that the novel missed out on character development because of this large spanning of characters.  I did enjoy the sense of shared history which this book explored, and the idea that whilst time can pass, the lives of women can stay largely the same as their predecessors. It is certainly an interesting, and perhaps unsettling, thought to think about the paths and links that you are following. Having said that, many of the women, especially the older ones, seemed to blur into one for me, and did not really hold a distinctive place in their own right other than that of a collective family. This could of course be a clever device, one which further emphasises the similarities of the generations in the family and their shared fates. If that is indeed the case, whilst I can appreciate the technique, I did not really enjoy the execution. Having to constantly remind myself of the family history to remember which character I was currently reading about and the place they hold in the family was not something which I found lead to an enjoyable read.

As this novel follows successive generations of the family, it is right to anticipate that certain historical events will touch upon their lives, especially events such as significant wars. Whilst this did happen, particularly where the World Wars are concerned, it was much more of a subtle background contributor than a look at the War itself. I did like this, as it avoided being dragged into a war novel which we have seen the likes of before. The horrific nature of such times is touched upon, but it is more of a stronger look at the effect this has on the dynamics of this particular family. For example, we see a pattern emerging with the women and the men they chose in the war.  It shows that in such uncertain times, there was not often the privilege of marrying for love, but rather out of necessity. This pattern is followed in various ways, but it was certainly interesting to think about how this concept has thankfully now changed in a modern society for most people.

I would be committing a grave lie if I protested that the parrot on the book’s simple but elegant cover design had not massively intrigued me. I am an animal lover, and any sign of an animal is always going to make me reach for a book. That being said, the book is not focused upon animals, but it is an underlying theme throughout. One of the most obvious examples of this is the fact that Ruby grows up living above their family pet shop, which does factor into events within their life. The bit which I really enjoyed though, was much more brutal, but all the more resonate. The book looks at the animals, particularly dogs, which were used in the war. On its own, this is not really anything new. Yet the author takes it further than this, examining the disturbing realities of animals in war which are a far cry from the canine heroics we so often are blinded by. She calls attention to the fact that whilst many of these animals ‘came from the Dogs Homes that were overflowing with unwanted dogs because of rationing’; many of them ‘came straight from families’ (p. 92). Just as the war stole away the sons, fathers, brothers, uncles of families, it also stole away the animals members of the family. Even worse is the way Atkinson brutally states that the ‘unsuitable dogs were sometimes sent back, the lucky ones back to the dogs home or their owners, but more often than not they were simply shot (p. 93). Being no help to the war effort, these petrified and traumatised animals were eliminated just like a soldier at the hands of an enemy rifle.

One of the features of this book is that it uses footnotes. These are not in the traditional academic sense, where they are at the bottom of the page, but rather stylised chapters.  They are numbered, and expand further on small details which have previously been mentioned in the book. By giving seemingly plain things a place in these footnotes, it imparts a greater sense of importance to them. At the end of my Black Swan edition of the book, there is a piece written by Kate Atkinson which I think sums up one of the ways you can view this book. She states that ‘The book saves things which might otherwise be lost, it gives them a value, just as the footnotes of this book – a rabbit’s foot, a glass button – represent so much more than they appear to.’ (p. 493).

This book is considered as literary fiction, and I can see why; it is very well written. I think it is more suitable however to call it accessible literary fiction, as it is an easy read without the heavy sophistication of many highly literary novels. Writing aside, I just did not warm to this book. It did not really capture my attention or emotions, and just seemed rather dull. Even the few family plot twists did not really enliven the reading experience.

Has anyone read any thing by Kate Atkinson? What do you think?

Publisher: Black Swan

Rating: 2*/5*


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