BOOK REVIEW – August 2012


Behind the Scenes at the Museum – By Kate Atkinson

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens wrote a novel about a boy named David Copperfield. The first chapter is called “I Am Born”, and in David’s own words we learn that he “was born. . .on a Friday at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike and I began to cry, simultaneously.” Children born with a caul as was David “towards the small hours on a Friday night” were said to be “unlucky in life. . .and privileged to see ghosts and spirits.”

How interesting that at the moment of her conception, Ruby Lennox cries out triumphantly, “I exist!”  And goes on to tell us that she is “conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece,” during the fifties in York, England, in a coupling that neither her father nor her mother enjoyed.

Destined to be unlucky in life, to see spirit sand ghosts? Like David, Ruby has her ups and downs, her happinesses and her sorrows. She grows up in an extremely dysfunctional family, her father a drunk and her mother a bitter, angry woman, miserable in her marriage, who manages to make her children as unhappy as she is. The night she is born her father, George, is in a local pub getting drunk and flirting with a woman. Her mother, Bunty, has to face the fact that she now has yet another child she really doesn’t want. But not only does Ruby exist, she reveals herself to us as a real flesh-and-blood character, a fully rounded three dimensional person.  She becomes someone we know and love and occasionally pity for her humor and her startling observations of her family: from her philandering father and dissatisfied mother back through time to her grandmother and great-grandmother, whose spirits live on in Bunty.

As Ruby narrates her story with straightforward dark humor completely lacking in sentiment, Atkinson uses an interesting device she calls a footnote, a chapter that follows each narrative chapter in which we learn about all of the dissatisfied people in her past and culminating in her present, along with the family secrets that each of the generations reveals.

But Ruby has secrets of her own. What adolescent doesn’t? During this period of her life when she is filled with confusion and angst, she suffers from sleepwalking and panic attacks. She wonders why no one sees her unhappiness. She believes that if Bunty saw a TV program about her life, Bunty would feel pity for Ruby, the jewel, and think that she “needs help, but because I am under her nose, eyes and feet, she doesn’t seem to notice.” And so Ruby tries to smash the glass of a patio door and, when asked why she is doing it, she replies, “Trying to escape.”  True, but of course she is also doing it to get the attention, love and concern that she craves from her mother and feels she will never have.

This is Kate Atkinson’s first novel which won a major prize in England, the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. I highly recommend this book to readers who want to immerse themselves in a fascinating description of generations of a family that culminates in one young unforgettable girl. Atkinson tells her story with language filled with wit, sometimes sardonic and satiric, and compassion. I for one am going to read the books that came after this one. Judging by Case Studies, a recent detective novel of hers, Atkinson continues to write astoundingly well, giving the reader characters who are real to us and completely engaging, and a narrative filled with the unexpected twists and turns that keeps us turning the pages. ~