Rereading Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum

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Kate Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum was published in 1995. It took me 12 years to get around to reading it, and I’ve just finished rereading it, another 12 years on from that. It’s a book that requires to be reread. Unless you’re very alert and have a good memory, I’d be surprised if you grasp the whole thing on first reading and, even if you do, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to enjoy the experience again.

This discussion is intended for people who have read Behind the Scenes at the Museum at least once. Of course, you’re more than welcome to read my remarks even if you’ve never read the book, or have completely forgotten it, but please be warned that I’ll be writing about a major plot point without any concern to hide so-called spoilers.

Ruby Lennox, the character at the centre of Behind the Scenes, is three different kinds of narrator all in one. Most obviously, she is a first-person narrator. The story she tells is her own and that of the people around her: sisters, parents and wider family. But her role as narrator is pulled in two different directions which are at odds not only with the standard first-person narrative but with each other.

First, Ruby has many of the characteristics of an omniscient narrator. She is able to report on the dreams her mother, Bunty, experienced shortly after Ruby’s conception. She knows where her father was at the moment of her birth. She recounts her great-grandmother’s elopement with a French photographer, more than half a century before her own birth and the troubles suffered by her grandmother’s generation during the first world war. She can describe another character’s inner mental state. She is able to tell the reader what became of her great-aunt Lillian and Lillian’s son, Edmund, after they had emigrated to Canada.

All of this notwithstanding, Ruby is lacking one essential trait of the omniscient narrator – omniscience. There is one fact of central importance of which she remains unaware until very late in the story: Ruby had an identical twin, whose name was Pearl, and who died when they were both four years old.

The first time I read the book, I completely missed all the hints and foreshadowing as to Pearl’s existence and early death. There’s Ruby’s habitual sleepwalking, which she recgonizes as part of a search for something she’s missing, without suspecting what. Her puzzlement that there seem to be twice as many photographs of her as there are of her sisters. Her incomprehension when her eldest sister, Patricia, asks whether “it” had been Gillian’s (the middle sister’s) fault.

When Ruby eventually recovers her memory of Pearl’s death, she finds that – contrary to what Gillian said at the time and to what Bunty seems intermittently to have believed – she was not responsible for the calamity. The last thing Pearl said as she slid into a frozen pond was “Ruby, help me”, and Ruby’s inability to answer that plea has certainly contributed to her sense of guilt and loss. It is obvious, though, that she couldn’t have saved her sister. Patricia, who was about 10 at the time, made several attempts to find Pearl under the ice and pull her out of the pond but was unsuccessful.

Gillian, in a panic and anxious to deflect blame from herself, has said that Ruby pushed Pearl. Although their mother believes that what Gillian has said is true, she sees that it would be wrong to hold a four-year-old responsible:

‘You pushed her in the water,’ she said flatly. ‘It was an accident. You didn’t know what would happen, you were only four years old.’ (Black Swan paperback edition, 1996, p. 329)

Gillian, who had goaded Pearl into following her across the ice, was just a two or three years older than the twins. If it would have been wrong to expect Ruby to bear responsibility for the accident, it would have been equally so to blame Gillian. A few years later, Gillian will herself be killed on Christmas Eve, becoming another of the dead children who haunt the book.

The deaths of children are a constant in Atkinson’s first novel. Ada, the eldest sister of Ruby’s grandmother, Nell, dies in childhood, as does their half-brother, Samuel. In a foreshadowing of Ruby’s guilt-ridden innocence, Ada has tried to give her half-brother chickenpox, only to have her efforts forestalled as a result of the boy’s death from a seizure before the chickenpox could take hold.

Their brother, Albert, is hardly out of childhood when he loses his life on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His friend Jack, the father of Lillian’s child – and Nell’s intended – is also killed at the Somme. In the second world war, Edmund, the son of Jack and Lillian, will die in a raid on Dresden, leaving a nurse from Belfast pregnant with a child, who will have to be adopted and who will later cross Nell’s path at the end of the latter’s life.

The surfeit of narrative types gives rise to a plot which is crammed with more detail than any ordinarily attentive reader could hope to keep up with. Reading of the death of the French photographer in Grimsby, I had to check further back in the story to see what other event this had coincided with. The “teeming” quality of the narrative (and its faux-omniscient nature) seem to be Ruby’s way of compensating for (and perhaps hiding from herself) the gaping hole surrounding both Pearl’s existence and the fact that she exists no longer.

The details of the lives of Ruby’s extended family, many of which she couldn’t possibly have known about, are at once true (because inevitable) and fabricated. As Ruby says at the end:

… who is to say which of these is real and which a fiction? In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense.

On first reading, I was bowled over by the revelation (late in the story but not in Ruby’s life) about Pearl’s life and death. My own childhood memories are very indistinct – I’ve since discovered that I have aphantasia and, quite likely, severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM) – and I’ve often (like most people, I imagine) found myself experiencing vague feelings of guilt which I’m not able to relate to any specific actions on my part. So the idea that it might be possible to suppress the memory of a sibling’s death was one I found distinctly unsettling.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of memory loss and strategies for coping with guilt. The central character in my short story, “The Bourne Indeterminacy”, is preoccupied with the trope of the amnesiac assassin, a character whose gradually – and then suddenly – returning memory reveals that he or she had done reprehensible things in the unremembered past. It’s only on second reading that I see clearly that Behind the Scenes at the Museum is that kind of story too. But, rather than tell a tale of international espionage, adventure and intrigue, Atkinson presents Ruby’s story as a family saga, making it harder for the reader to maintain an emotional distance from her sense of loss mingled with guilt. Maybe I won’t wait 12 years before my next rereading.

I just found a review by Hilary Mantel from 1996 in the London Review of Books, which begins:

On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year’s Whitbread is a damp squib.

Infuriating as this is, I find myself ruefully recognizing a pattern. The reason I delayed reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum for 12 years is that the initial reviews and commentary led me to believe that it wasn’t the kind of book I’d be interested in. (A family saga of working-class Yorkshire life? It sounds admirably worthy but hardly an exciting read.) It was only after I read Case Histories and One Good Turn – though not in that order – that it struck me that there might be more of interest in Atkinson’s fiction than the critics had been letting on.

Similarly, in the early 1980s, my reading of Midnight’s Children had been too long delayed because I’d uncritically accepted the misleading comments of critics and reviewers (something I expect to write about eventually). I sometimes wonder if they believe their function is to put people off reading books.

Thank you for reading. If you’d like some more book discussion and literary criticism by me, I’m now sending out a newsletter, Talk about books, every two weeks, containing exactly that. Follow the link to sign up.

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Writer of (mainly short) fiction, criticism/discussion and other stuff; aphantasic; antimasculine male, no pronoun preference https://www.artkavanagh.ie

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