Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Often, family sagas centre on a great love, either thwarted or consummated. While Behind the Scenes at the Museum might be the story of a family, with limbs reaching back into the past, at its heart is not love, but loss.

With Ruby as the narrator of its modern-day sections, it begins in the womb. However, the story does not really begin as one of home and optimism, but slight dread. After all, the mother, Bunty, is not the kind to welcome a baby with open arms. Even the conception ‘has left her irritable, an emotion with which she is very comfortable”. Still less hope is held for her father, George, who is partial to a night on the tiles with his sleazy butcher friend.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum weaves between the lives of Ruby and her great-grandmother, stopping at moments of significance in the lives of the many who came between and alongside the two. There are the great challenges of war, fire and death, alongside the more mundane realities of domestic life that occasionally give rise to great (and often unwise) decisions.

Humour runs through the book, along with a matter-of-fact approach to death and despair. And there is much death and despair in a book in which war is an ominous presence for generations. Healthy young boys leave, never to return. Others are left without a hand or a foot, and girls without the fiancé they had finally found. Families are whittled down to just a few members, drudging along through the deaths or desertions of their sisters and brothers.

Amid the tragedy, treated lightly with the effect that it arrives as a surprise, there are small moments of family intimacy. These times of closeness are more startling than any of the more supposedly dramatic scenes, such is their rarity. When Ruby and Patricia spend time together in their adolescent years, or when Bunty takes her daughter to a café while she is experiencing the rush of new love, it is unexpected and somehow unsettling.

For, here is a book in which mothers leave their children in the night, in which another’s style of parenting is described as ‘autistic’. Husbands and wives view each other with disdain and affection is in short supply. But, perhaps it is the humour, or the recognition of the absurdity of elements of family life, that somehow make this book heart-warming. After all, to survive such families and achieve any degree of happiness is a kind of miracle.

Perhaps that is what this book is: one of family, loss and survival. I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum after it was recommended by a work colleague, after she named it one of her favourite books, so I felt some pressure to like it. But there was no need – it would be hard not to enjoy Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

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