‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ is Kate Atkinson’s debut novel first published in 1995 and narrated by Ruby Lennox born in 1952 to a middle-class family who live above a pet shop in York. The plot alternates between chapters recounting significant events in Ruby’s childhood during the 1950s and 1960s and extended “footnotes” about the earlier generations of her family told in non-chronological order. Most significantly, the story of what happened to Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice has implications for the whole family for many years to come.
Much like Atkinson’s most recent novels Life After Life and A God in Ruins, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ is a multi-generational family saga with a twisting structure which thankfully doesn’t distract too much from her brilliant character observation. With four sprawling generations to contend with, the Lennox family tree is more complex than that of the Todd family in Atkinson’s later novels, but the connections between the characters and the numerous revelations which eventually follow are handled deftly. Based on the careful plotting which is evident in ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’, it is not surprising that Atkinson later moved towards the crime fiction genre in her series of novels featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie.
The main set-pieces from Ruby’s childhood include a family gathering for the Queen’s coronation, holidays in Whitby and Scotland, a wedding and a number of deaths. While some significant events are revealed to the reader long before they actually occur, such as the death of Ruby’s older sister Gillian, the fates of certain other family members are much more ambiguous. It later transpires that this is for good reason as while the inclusion of a family tree diagram would help readers get to grips with the large cast of characters, it would also reveal too much too soon. Much of the domestic drama unfolds while Ruby is still too young to fully understand the implications of what is happening around her but Atkinson reveals clues to the reader through her character’s youthful naivety. In a novel largely preoccupied by family tragedy and the trauma of two World Wars, this also helps inject some humour into some not very humorous situations.
‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ is an impressive debut novel and a deserving winner of the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year Award. Seeking out more of Atkinson’s excellent writing was definitely worthwhile and while I won’t be setting myself a specific target, I will be making more of an effort this year to explore the back catalogues of authors I have discovered through their recent work.