Behind the Scenes at the Museum
is really a very good book, marred by one gimmick that frustrates me because it's so unnecessary to the story Kate Atkinson is telling.
For the most part, however, I enjoyed this one immensely. Atkinson has a knack for turns of phrase that are amusing and piercing and unexpected, and I loved these in particular. The story is meandering, and weaves back and forth in time, but it was the sort of meander I greatly enjoy.
This is a story about uneasy relationships between daughters and mothers, and husbands and wives. I don't think there's a happy marriage to be seen. Or a mother-daughter relationship that isn't fraught with tension.
The main character, Ruby, starts to narrate her life before she is even born (which the later gimmick makes quite unlikely), and from the very beginning, it is clear that motherhood and housewifery are far from her mother, Bunty's, vocation. We're not really sure what Bunty's vocation might have been, but this isn't it.
Bunty herself has an adversarial relationship with her husband, who she feels trapped her into a life of domestic and retail servitude, and not a close connection to her mother. Her mother, Nell, lost two fiances and a brother in the war, and married shortly thereafter, to a man who was never her first choice. Her own mother, Alice, was never present, and the reasons for that are unveiled slowly through the novel. (This long reveal works. Another doesn't.)
As a look at domestic life, and tension within these British working-class families in the 20th century, this book sparkles. And the characters are rich and vivid. Ruby and her sisters, Gillian and Patricia, are not precious, are not particularly cute, are volatile and crabby and human. They don't act like little girls in books. They are selfish, and loving, and distant, and bossy. At different times, and each sister is memorable.
There are hints, though, of another sister, a twin to Ruby. And this would have been fine if, say Pearl had died as a baby, or before Ruby could remember her, although Ruby's narration of her life before she was born through her birth makes this a bit of a difficult sell. But no, Pearl lived until she was four, and Ruby has amnesia about not only her death, but her entire existence. This I didn't like at all. It felt gimmicky, and most frustratingly of all, unnecessary. This is a damned good book. It didn't need this kind of gimmick. It adds little to the story except a difficulty in the suspension of my disbelief.
This issue aside, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Atkinson's authorial voice, and the book as a whole. I just wish there wasn't this jarring addition to the last third of the novel that was distracting and superfluous.
Crossposted to Smorgasbook