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{her ideal situation would be} “to have enough money … [to] write and not be published”.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.

Related Reviews:

Life After Life: A Novel

“Ursula’s life begins, ends, rewinds, begins again – and again – in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.   Would she ever get it right?

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Atkinson’s use of rewriting the same chapters cleverly demonstrates that road not travelled.  Each time Ursula dies, the story rewinds to the alternative possibility.  If the cord had not strangled her at birth, if she had not reached for her doll and fallen off the roof, if she had not drowned in the ocean, or died young from the flu – Atkinson notes: “Such a fine line between living and dying…”

As the story progresses, and Ursula grows into her sixteenth birthday, another milestone, the difference between being kissed, by whom, and how, changes her future.  When she decides to leave her bucolic home as a young British woman venturing into the world, the choices seem inconsequential but they are not.  Atkinson writes Ursula into several possible lives – after she forgoes university to attend secretarial school – or graduates and spends a year abroad.  Even her study major makes a difference.

As Ursula matures, she begins to recognize the signs of a former life, sometimes to the point of trying to control the outcome.  When Bridget, the maid and carrier of the deadly flu, returns again and again, ending Ursula’s new lives, Ursula decides to take care of matters herself by pushing Bridget down the stairs.  Her parents, taking a dim view of her déjà vu, sign her up for a psychiatrist.

When the book opens, Ursula has just shot Hitler.  Eventually, her life rewinds back to this scene, but not before Atkinson has filled the pages with scenes of war from all perspectives and from both sides of the Channel.  Ursula’s roles in different lives range from British air raid warden to Eva Braun’s confidante at Hitler’s retreat in Berghof.  Descriptions of the Blitz carry the central focus of the novel and take you not only to the underground holes and devastating terror, but also to the lives of those trying to survive.

As I became invested in Ursula, the story became interactive.  I worried over her, knowing that the murderer was around the bend, or that the wall would fall on her – wanting to shout to her to stop.  When all seemed lost, I knew Atkinson would soon rewind and all would be well again in another chance – wouldn’t it?

Eventually, Ursula realizes her retakes in life carry a purpose.  She decides to focus and use her decisions to get her there – until eventually she does loop back to the opening chapter and change the world.  But Atkinson does not end the book there; she keeps rewinding…

“Don’t you wonder if just one small thing had been changed in the past…surely things would be different.”

What if one small thing had been changed in your life – in your decisions – makes you wonder….

My reading of the book reflected its theme: I started reading the first few pages; Ursula died.  I stopped, packed, saved her for my long plane ride.  Ursula lived again, and died again as an infant. When Ursula finally progressed to her fifth birthday; my Kindle battery died.  Travel in Spain distracted me and I did not return to the book – until a friend gave me a paperback copy of Atkinson’s first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum – and I remembered.    What would have happened if I had never finally read the book?  Like Ursula, I would have missed the most important part and an amazing adventure.

Kate Atkinson

9780316176484_p0_v9_s260x420Although I had Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog on my to-read list, my good intentions went astray and I never did read that book. Now she has a new novel, Life After Life, and the theme seems vaguely familiar: the main character relives a segment of her life over and over, never realizing she has been there before.

An interesting conceit that has been used before, so I preordered the book, and it now sits on my Kindle. But – not until I read Sarah Lyall’s interview of the author in her New York Times article Kate Atkinson’s Groundhog Day Fiction – “Three Beginnings, Reverse Chronology and a Novel That Starts Over in Every Chapter,” did I want to read the book. Lyall connects the author to her writing, uncovering some of those moments the reader always wonders about – where is the connection of fiction to the author’s life? As an intensely private person, Atkinson carefully reveals only a sampling of her thoughts behind the writing, but it is enough.

The best sales pitch for reading came in the last paragraph of the interview, when Atkinson notes:

“The legacy of the fairy story in my brain is that everything will work out…In fiction it would be very hard for me, as a writer, to give a bad ending to a good character, or give a good ending to a bad character. That’s probably not a very postmodern thing to say.”

Maybe not, but my kind of book…