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Reviews: Past Books Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

At its core Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a repressed-memory story. Kate Atkinson’s protagonist and narrator, Ruby Lennox, had a twin sister named Pearl who was drowned at age four. Not until the end of the book does Ruby know she was a twin, although attentive readers pick up on that fact from the novel’s outset because Atkinson skillfully punctuates passages with revealing foreshadowing.

The character of Ruby, with her insistent narrator’s voice and her jaunty, comical delivery, animates the book. Quirky and complex, Ruby relates the events of her life and those of her dysfunctional family – starting with the moment of her conception in York, England in 1951. She reveals that her parents own a pet shop in the shadows of the ancient York Minster Cathedral; that her mother, Bunty, bitterly regrets having married her philandering husband, George; and that she has two sisters -- four-year-old, stubborn and golden curled, Gillian, and five-year-old, melancholy and plain, Patricia. Not romantic in any way, Ruby’s conception happens after George returns from the pub, having successfully worked his way through “five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter.”

Ambitious in scope, the novel also charts three generations of Ruby’s family history as reported in “footnotes” that follow relevant chapters. For example, a passage about a pink glass button prompts a “footnote” chapter about Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice who will abandon her family to run off with a French photographer. But it is Ruby’s account of the present, which includes both the details of daily life and the tragedies in the Lennox family, that is most gripping. Her family lives “above the shop” in rooms too small for what Ruby describes as “a seething kingdom with its own primitive rules and two rival contenders for the crown – George and Bunty.”

While still snuggled in the womb, Ruby shares with us the first hint that she may not be alone: “Why do I have this strange feeling, as if my shadow’s stitched to my back, almost as if there’s somebody else in here with me? Am I being haunted by my own embryonic ghost?”

Ruby, the embryo, explains that “as a family we are genetically predisposed towards having accidents – being run over and blown apart are the two most common.” Becoming chillingly precise, she tells us that Gillian will be run over by a pale blue Hillman Husky in 1959. On the topic of Bunty, whom she refers to as “the flower of English womanhood,” Ruby notes that her mother does not possess any emotion other than irritation. And Bunty’s attitude toward pain, “or indeed emotion of any kind, is to behave as if it sprang from a personality disorder.” As far as Ruby can fathom, the only principle in Bunty’s personal canon is that shop-bought cakes are a sign of sluttish housewifery.

Glibly, Ruby reveals that at the moment of her birth early in February, 1952, George was in a pub “with a pint of bitter in front of him and is just telling a woman in an emerald dress and a ‘D’ cup that he is not married.”

Atkinson blends two impressive set-pieces into the book. The first portrays the extended Lennox family gathered “Above the shop” in 1953 to watch on television the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. The other, later in the novel, depicts a family wedding reception taking place at the same time as the televised World Cup Championship game in 1966 in which England played Germany.

As Ruby, her parents and sisters – surrounded by an assortment of grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins – watch the historic crowning of Britain’s monarch on the wooden-boxed television, Gillian, who is now five, gives new meaning to the word “cute.” With her headful of bubbling, blond curls and prominently displayed navy knickers, she sings and tap dances through her version of “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Watching, one-year-old Ruby drops a hint when she muses that Gillian “does not yet know that the price exacted for this unearthly splendor is…an untimely death.”

Another tip-off to the existence of Ruby’s twin surfaces. Ruby explains: “The alcohol level above the shop is reaching critical levels, and I’m quite relieved when Bunty looks at me, clasps her hands to her mouth in horror and says ‘They’re not in bed yet!’.” Ruby has left her teddy bear outdoors in the marigold bed, but can’t retrieve it because: “Leaning awkwardly against the back gate is George, locked in a thrusting embrace with an unseen woman, his trousers unbecomingly around his ankles.”

With footnote chapters in between, the next event Ruby details is her mysterious exile in 1956, three years after the queen’s coronation. She has been sent to another town to stay with Auntie Babs and her eight-year-old twin daughters. Ruby is homesick, and it is there that she begins sleepwalking. She returns home after a stay of several weeks, and tellingly notes that, “…it’s strange to be alone in my bedroom, and I have a distinct feeling that something or someone is missing.”

Ruby continues sleepwalking, and Patricia seems troubled and confused. In an urgent, ferocious whisper she asks Ruby, “Was it Gillian? Was it Gillian’s fault?” Puzzled, Ruby tells readers that she hasn’t the faintest idea what Patricia is talking about. Around this time, ruby finds a silver locket in Bunty’s bedside table: “When I open the locket I find two tiny photographs of me, one in each wing of the locket.”

The story advances to Christmas Eve day, 1959, when Gillian is almost 12. Ruby points out: “It’s Christmas Eve when Gillian pays the price of all those golden-blond curls, so there’ll never be much chance of forgetting the anniversary of her death. It will put a blight on Christmas this year and for quite a few Christmases to come.”

During the late morning on the fateful day, Gillian, in a dark mood, sprawls in an armchair. Ruby speculates, “I wonder if I were to say ‘Listen, Gillian, this is your last day on earth; lighten up for heaven’s sake,’ she would take any notice?” The family attends a pantomime of Hansel and Gretel at the Theater Royal. At its conclusion Bunty behaves like a “frantic rodent , jumping up and down at the end of the row, urging us to hurry up, while we fumble desperately with hats, scarves, gloves and programs.” Ruby thinks, “Why does she do this? Why does she induce a sense of panic commensurate with an earthquake when it’s obvious that we are going to have to queue for ages before the exits clear?”

While the family waits outside on the pavement for a taxi, Gillian is hit by a car and killed when she darts into the street.

The following day, Ruby, Patricia and grandmother, Nell, are alone above the shop. “We eat with our plates on our knees in front of the TV and enjoy our Christmas dinner more than seems appropriates after the demise of a close relative,” Ruby dryly observes.

Not long after Gillian’s death, another tragedy befalls the Lennoxes. Ruby relates: “Just as the Great Fire of London helped to purge the Great Plague, so the Great Pet Shop Fire helped to purge the death of Gillian. The fire was a purification, an ordeal that we survived and which allowed some change and renewal. For some reason, Gillian no longer hung quite so heavily on our consciences. (If she’d been alive, Patricia reasoned with torturous logic, ‘she might have died in the fire, so she’d be dead anyway, right?’).”

The necessity of rebuilding the shop prompts George to transform its merchandize from pets to medical and surgical supplies. The diminished, bereaved family moves to a semi-detached home in a better area of York. And soon Ruby follows her older sisters – living and dead – to Queen Anne’s Grammar School for Girls.

On a frigid winter day, as Ruby walks with Patricia near the frozen Ouse, she hears the river cracking. She experiences a strong but ill-defined feeling, a feeling of something long forgotten. She explains: “It has something to do with the cold and the ice and something to do with the water, too…I know there’s something incredibly important which I’ve lost and have been looking for – something that’s been torn out of me, leaving a hole inside.”

The novel’s second set-piece, which recounts the drunken reception following Bunty’s younger brother’s wedding ceremony, is every bit as remarkable as the passage charting the gathering to view the televised queen’s coronation. Though Ruby is a bridesmaid, she feels isolated, unmotivated to take part in the merry-making. Patricia, who has become a politically active socialist, is away from York, ensconced in a residence for unwed mothers where she will soon give birth and then relinquish her baby for adoption. Bunty and George, socializing separately, are both roaring drunk. In a plot development that seems slightly off-key, George dies in the midst of the festivities while in flagrante delicto with a plump waitress.

With George permanently off stage, Atkinson is free to introduce a vile character named Mr. Belling who becomes Bunty’s “boyfriend” rather too soon after George’s death. Belling is always present in Bunty’s life, and, predictably, Ruby despises him. Here is a typical exchange between the two:

“Why don’t you offer me a little drink, Ruby?”
“Why don’t you get it yourself?”
“What a rude little madam you are!”
“And I don’t like you either!”
“You’re going to get what’s coming to you, one of these days, Ruby Lennox!”
“Oh yeah, what’s that – love and affection?!”

One argument ends with shattering words from Belling that Ruby will never be able to block from her consciousness: “You killed your own sister, Ruby…You killed your own sister!” Ruby, thinking of course of Gillian, hisses back at him: “I did not kill my sister…she was run over.” To which he cruelly replies: “I don’t mean that one, you stupid girl, I mean your twin sister.” The spiteful words cause Ruby to confront the accusation that has haunted her all her life.

In one of the final chapters, Atkinson gives us what we have been waiting for since the novel’s very outset – a harrowing depiction of Pearl’s death, a portrayal that at last exonerates Ruby. Not before hitting bottom mentally, Ruby recovers her memory of the day of her sister’s death: Pearl drowns when Gillian persuades her to walk on a frozen pond, and the ice breaks under her. Gillian covers up her role in the accident by claiming that Ruby pushed her sister into the water.

Patricia is not at home in York to witness Ruby’s epiphany. She has moved permanently to Australia, a change with surprisingly positive and enduring results. Ruby, too, soon leaves Bunty and York behind to find her way as an adult. But up until the time of Bunty’s death, though some may think they owe her little, Patricia and Ruby spend short periods of time with their mother. Though clearly depleted, the threesome makes up a family of sorts.

Atkinson’s compelling plot and the coming-of-age of her engaging protagonist narrator are not the book’s only achievements. The often- unpleasant but nevertheless authentic insights we gain from its reading are many. For example, war ruins lives. Bunty’s mother Nell and Nell’s sister Lillian (whose mother, we have seen, had abandoned them, running off with the photographer) lost brothers and husbands in World War I battles. Book critic, Ben Macintyre, praises Behind the Scenes at the Museum, writing: “Atkinson’s description of Ruby’s male forebears staggering blindly through the mud of the Somme without a notion of why they are there, but convinced, in some cases rightly, that they will die, is one of the most gripping and sincere depictions of war I have ever read.”

The impact of World War II a generation later is also depicted. Bunty, whose handsome American G.I. boyfriend jilted her, believed she was forced to settle for George. Perhaps it was her mistaken optimism about the war that shaped her adult discontent. Atkinson explains, “Bunty had great hopes for the war. There was something attractive about the way it took away certainty and created new possibilities…It was likely that something exciting would happen to Bunty, and it didn’t matter whether it was an unbelievably handsome man or a bomb – it would all mean a change in one way or another.”

Another understanding or insight about the human condition that the novel provides is that the family unit is not always a haven of love and affection. It is sometimes a disturbing group characterized by violence, resentment and jealousy. Maternal instinct is sometimes a cultural myth, and a father’s ability or inclination to care for and protect his children can be nonexistent. We learn from Atkinson’s representation of Bunty and Ruby’s relationship that some women are reluctant mothers and some daughters are ungrateful, that some mothers are not nurturing and some children simply do not love their mothers. And the book contains truths about the fragility of families. Loss through death and disappearance is common.

The footnote chapters of the book, tracing earlier generations of Ruby’s family, offer perspective on Ruby’s experiences by revealing equally devastating tales of family cruelty, abandonment and loss. While Ruby never did receive the familial love and affection that she tells Mr. Belling she wants, as events unfold, the novel powerfully suggests that regardless of its flaws, the family is not a group one can easily leave behind. Perhaps this notion is the book’s most consequential truth.