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Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

This is one of the stories where the narrator tells the story from her conception (no, I don’t either), which takes places at midnight, begun on the first stroke and finished on the last. The conceptee is Ruby Lennox, daughter of George and Bunty. All live on the same premises as the pet shop, the family’s source of income. While Ruby is the focus of the story, the novel revolves around the family throughout the century as Atkinson takes up the story, with asides, flashbacks and what she calls footnotes of the various family members, primarily the women ones, and how they survived and propagated in twentieth century Yorkshire. Ruby is not alone on her arrival in the world nine months later (in which we participate with a fair amount of detail). She has been preceded by her sisters, Gillian (she’s going to be very surprised when she finds out about me) and Patricia.

We follow Ruby in her growing up, with its trials, tribulations and tragedies. But what makes this book so enjoyable is Ruby’s commentary on life and her family. She loves her family but, like most of us, is at times exasperated by them and frequently, with great wit, castigates their foibles, particularly those of her philandering, boozing father. Her story goes well beyond her immediate family. Her twin cousins, Daisy and Rose, play a major part in her life. The twin theme will become important, as it often tends to do in novels.

This is a woman’s novel. Most of the main characters are female and the role of men tends to be incidental and those that do appear tend to be either bothersome or trivial (even Ruby’s husband of seven years is almost irrelevant). This works to the benefit of the story as we get a wonderful view of the century through the women’s eyes and, in particular, through the eyes of Ruby, who, with all the ups and downs in her life, comes out, as she herself says, as a precious jewel.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Doubleday