Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

Overall this is a light and easy read, but among the humour and the deftly-sketched Yorkshire characters there is tragedy lurking.

The narrative technique, beginning as it does with Ruby Lennox describing her stint as a foetus, starting with the moment of conception, lures you into thinking of the narrator as all-seeing and all-knowing, but just because Ruby-as-foetus has extraordinary insight into her mother’s thoughts and dreams that doesn’t mean she’s a wholly reliable narrator. This fallible nature is played on to good effect later on in the novel – just when you think there are no surprises (since Ruby-as-narrator will say things like Of course, he was about to be killed by a falling piano but they didn’t know that at the time. That’s a made-up example, by the way) you’re hit with a big one, though even that is not as it initially seems.

Superficially, Behind the Scenes at the Museum traces Ruby’s troubled family life amid sisters, cousins, aunts and bickering parents through the 1950s and 60s, with a sort of coda to sum things up. However, alternating with this narrative are the chapters of family history which explain quirks, traits or family traditions in the main narrative (they are introduced as footnotes to the main story). In this way, as well as meeting a wider cast of characters and seeing some of the adults in Ruby’s life as they were in their younger days, we also see the patterns repeating through the generations. The sibling rivalry and favouritism, the dreams followed or stifled, marriages of convenience, world wars and early deaths. The historical chapters, incidentally, feel very natural – no ‘obvious’ research to jar you out of the fictional landscape.

The Yorkshire setting (mainly York, a little in the Dales and elsewhere) played a part in my enjoyment of the novel – recognising some of the characters from my childhood, as well as being able to picture clearly much of the surroundings. However, the characters are well-drawn, the dialogue believable and the light touch carries you along quite quickly through the story so I would recommend it widely.

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