20th century,  General Fiction

Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind The Scenes At The Museum is Kate Atkinson’s first novel – originally published in 1995 – and winner the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. The following is a SPOILER FREE review. Enjoy!


From Book Depository:

Ruby Lennox was conceived grudgingly by Bunty and born while her father, George, was in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster telling a woman in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he wasn’t married. Bunty had never wanted to marry George, but here she was, stuck in a flat above the pet shop in an ancient street beneath York Minster, with sensible and sardonic Patricia aged five, greedy cross-patch Gillian who refused to be ignored, and Ruby…Ruby tells the story of The Family, from the day at the end of the nineteenth century when a travelling French photographer catches frail beautiful Alice and her children, like flowers in amber, to the startling, witty, and memorable events of Ruby’s own life.

First of all, no site offers an attractive description of the book. I was very reluctant to read it at first because somehow it did not fit the image of Kate Atkinson as a writer that I had in mind. Shame on me for doubting the always-masterful Atkinson! Behind The Scenes At The Museum is a really good book, a great one, and probably even better than any other of her novels except for the recent Life After Life. Actually, the themes in this book -and the complex family relations, draw a family tree when you read them both !-  hint at the seed that will later on produce Life After Life. There are moments when you can feel Ursula’s ghost wandering around, waiting for her time to arrive and become a main character herself. But Behind The Scenes At The Museum belongs to Ruby:

“I am a jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox!”

The story begins on Ruby’s conception which is a quite unusual way to start a novel, and might I add quite a polemic one in a time when abortion and conception are widely discussed. I was not at ease with the idea, but since I was between the safe boundaries of fiction I told myself to simply enjoy the story. Ruby’s story seems typical of anyone born in a middle-class family in the 1950’s in England, but as the plot progresses we find not everything is what it seems. Ruby is totally aware of what is going on around her even though she is a baby. In fact, her character shifts easily from being an omniscient narrator to a what she really is: a child. It is this contrast what makes the novel so special and innovative, and also what keeps you engaged. With such duality she explores her parents’ marriage and her relationship with her two older sisters: Patricia and Gillian. I said the novel belongs to Ruby because it truly does, but it explores the life of the women from whom she comes: her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. Some would say they are different stories, but the fact they are a family and the plot only focuses on the women in that family is extremely relevant. This creates a familiar identity that influences our personal history, that is, one is partly what it is thanks to their ancestors. As a consequence, it is not strange to find uncanny resemblances between the four generation of women despite the relevant economic, social and cultural changes that separated them.

Because of its focus on women – late 19th century and 20th century herstory – the book covers a wide range of themes extremely important in women’s history and sadly, still fought for nowadays. The supposed need to marry, the impossibility of getting contraceptives, gender roles and The Angel in the House, violence, personal frustration, lack of opportunities in the outer world (college, jobs), the constant and prevalent fight between science and humanities and above all, what being a woman meant, not for oneself, but for the others and mainly, what it meant for men.

After such a description, what more can I say? I loved the book yet I found it extremely sad that some issues dealt with are still present in my life. This is poignant, moving book. It’ll move you from tears to laughter in a single chapter. It will make you love and hate the very same character in the same sentence. But, if you are a woman this book will resonate with you and the stories you probably heard from your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Sadly, some of it could also resonate with your own life now in 2013, but this is why books like Behind The Scenes At The Museum are so important and so wonderful. They remind us of our past and also of our present, but they also remind us of our future and how we are building it every day and need to so in a conscious and constructive way. If possible, always a feminist way.

Some quotes I knew you would love:

“The past is what you take with you.”

“But I know nothing; my future is a wide-open vista, leading to an unknown country – The Rest Of My Life.”

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



Don't forget to share what you think!