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Behind the Scenes at the Museum

BehindTheScenesAtTheMuseumKate Atkinson caused a stir with her first book – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – by winning the Whitbread Prize in 1995.  Since then she has continued to win awards for her stories, but noted in an interview:

{her ideal situation would be} “to have enough money … [to] write and not be published”. {She doesn’t like reviews or critics.} “It’s a very uncomfortable thing for a writer, we’re very tender.”

When critics assaulted her for winning for her first book – over seasoned authors – Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies) defended the first-time author with a scathing op-ed piece in the London Review of Books titled – Shop!   After reading Atkinson’s latest success – Life After Life – I was curious to read her first book.

With the same theme of examining a life from birth through the voice of the narrator, Behind the Scenes at the Museum reflects the historical perspective and self-examination that later became the unique twist of rebirth in Life After Life.  In this first novel, however, the life of Ruby Lennox continues as everyone around her seems to die, and the story is dense with details that sometimes mask the clues that later reveal surprises in Ruby’s life.

Ruby’s story begins with conception and throughout the book she assumes a dual role.  Spanning the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Ruby tells her own story and that of the women in her life – her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  She also acts as the omniscient narrator with access to the future fates of her sisters and lovers, revealed in chapters titled “footnotes.”  Atkinson withholds two major surprises in the telling – one about Ruby herself and the other about the father of a major character – no spoilers here.

As the scenes shift from each woman’s fate, their commonalities create a thread through relationships and hardships – all affecting Ruby and her life.  Atkinson neatly notes:

“The past is what you take with you.”

If I had not read Life After Life first, I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed this one as much.    Atkinson’s style takes some getting used to, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum has obscure moments that are sometimes confusing.  But I could hear Ursula (the narrator from Life After Life) singing in the wings – waiting to be born.

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