No 629 Behind the Scenes at The Museum by Kate Atkinson

I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but sometimes when I read a book that I have loved, I find it very hard to write a review that I feel will do it justice. As always with Reading Roulette, you picked an amazing book for me to read and I only hope I can capture a hint of what I loved about it.


In Kate Atkinson’s wonderful family epic, a character is reading À la recherché du temps perdu by Marcel Proust and Ruby Lennox, our narrator notes,

‘I see it is about ‘the metaphysical ambiguity of reality, time and death and the power of sensation to retrieve memories and reverse time’. Exciting stuff – but how can time be reversible when it gallops forward, clippity-clop and nobody ever comes back. Do they?

It’s a good question, because in between these pages, people do come back. Vividly and evocatively a whole family of Lennox women appear to exist simultaneously in the mind of Ruby, who narrates her own tale of growing up in 1950s York in between ‘Footnotes’, artfully arranged vignettes of the lives of the women who have made her. The reader doesn’t follow the path of the Lennox family, rather we are taken on a grand waltz, swirling and dancing with different partners but always brought back to Ruby.

It’s a perfect marriage of form and narrative as this family saga of four generations reminds us that we are where we have come from, the past is always closer than we think and family secrets have a way of resurfacing no matter how well we believe them to be buried.

Ruby is an all seeing narrator. Echoing another child of York, Tristram Shandy, the book opens at the moment of her conception. The youngest child of unhappy Bunty and adulterous George, Ruby is silent and watchful, at the mercy of sisters Gillian and Patricia yet able to see through everyone. She recounts her story , from birth, through childhood and school, significant world events and on to adulthood. Laced in and out of Ruby’s tale are other stories from her family history, condensed tales that often could be novels in their own right. We learn of her grandmother Nell’s attempts to find a husband in WW1, her great-aunt Ada’s death from diphtheria aged just 12 and her own mother Bunty’s attempts to make something of her life during WW2, only to be continually and perpetually disappointed. The story of Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice, who runs off to France with a travelling photographer is particularly poignant. Years later, searching the streets of York for the family she gave up, she is killed in a bomb raid, clinging to the photograph of the family she has never forgotten.


The depth and emotive power of these footnotes and the sheer amount of detail they contain could be overwhelming, but Ruby’s arch, all-knowing narrative takes this saga of births, deaths, abandonments and mysteries and makes it exhilarating – an anarchic, messy cacophony of characters and voices that make up the reality of family life.

It is a vast, complicated narrative, dense with detail and rich with life. It should be depressing, but the underlying joy of Ruby’s narrative voice, replete with tragi-comic knowing and black comic irony keeps a cool, humorous, unsentimental tone throughout much of the book. There are some fantastic set-pieces – a family wedding that ends in the ignominious death of Ruby’s father; an ill-advised holiday to Scotland and in particular, the recounting of Gillian’s death following a pantomime on Christmas Eve results in Patricia and Ruby eyeing up Gillian’s presents under the tree and wondering just how long they need to wait before they can open and reapportion them.

Kate Atkinson

Death is everywhere in a novel that spans so many generations and is celebrated for its capriciousness. When a soldier gets a posting looking after sniffer dogs during the War, you just know things aren’t going to end well. In the space of one short paragraph, Ruby’s grandmother Nell gains and loses a fiancée courtesy of appendicitis.

Atkinson writes incredibly well about war and how it affects those directly and indirectly involved. Scenes of trench warfare are vivid and heartrending and the toll taken on those waiting at home is also delicately handled.

Frank found himself unexpectedly tongue-tied. He had through there were a lot of things about the war he wanted to tell them but was surprised to discover that the neat triangles of bread and jam and the prettiness of the little blue forget-me-nots somehow precluded him from talking about trench foot and rats, let alone the many different ways of dying he had witnessed.

The dichotomy between the expectations of war and the realities it brings are teased out. For Bunty, the war was a chance to become someone else but that does not happen and for others it brings survival where death was expected.

As with the depictions of war, the deceptively naïve humour often gives way to some really affecting moments – Alice passing one of her long-lost children in the street without knowing him and Ada trying to come to terms with the disappearance of her mother during her short, unhappy life are beautifully poignant.

Amongst these deaths, missing mothers, fallen soldiers and lost children, there is one final death, unforetold that Ruby cannot brush off with the unsentimentality of youth. It is a death that retells her entire life. Despite her narrative omnipotence there is one secret she doesn’t know and her exploration of the Lennox family life feels at times like she is diving into her past for the one nugget of truth that will explain everything.

And my heart is breaking, breaking into great jagged icy splinters. I breathe in bug noisy gulps because I’m drowning on air, and if I could cast a spell to stop time – suspend it for ever and ever, so that the cobwebs grew over my hair and the ducks stopped in the middle of their circles and the feathers lay still on the air, drifting through time for ever – then I could do it.

But Ruby knows that time cannot be stopped and life, or death cannot be explained and that is the crux of this book.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum could be seen as the story of women through the generations. The choices of Ruby’s great grandmother Alice, who gives up a job for a drunken husband and eventually chooses to abandon her family aren’t all that different from those of her daughter, or even her grand-daughter Bunty. They are all trying to find their place in the world through the men they chose, or the men who chose them and they all find that place lacking.

She pushed her hair back from her forehead in a centuries-old gesture of suffering. The life of a woman is hard and she’ll be damned if anyone is going to rob her of her sainthood

And yet, there are women here who make their own choices – Great Aunt Lillian who won’t name the father of her illegitimate baby and the wonderful Patricia who never does what is expected of her. The timelines may be confusing, but Atkinson sets up beautiful echoes that ring back and forward through the years of these women ‘lost in time’.

It is as if she is trying to find them again, these lost women, to reclaim them – their lives, their stories – and preserve them for our posterity. She creates a museum of lives, where items take on talismanic worth. A rabbit’s foot, a button, a silver locket, a set of photographs that make their way around the world and back. A child’s teddy bear. Belongings convey meaning and history.

Ruby’s friend is saving items for her ‘bottom drawer’ and Ruby muses on what she would include in hers.

What would I put in my bottom drawer? I would put the horizon, and some snatches of birdsong, the blossom-like snow in the garden of the Treasurer’s House and the white ruined arches of St Mary’s Abbey below, like petrified lace…

I have been to the world’s end and back and now I know what I would put in my bottom drawer. I would put my sisters.

The emotional investment in things, in places and ultimately in people creates millions of personal museums, countless bottom drawers of the mind where the minutiae and memories of our lives become the greatest artefacts we have.

A breeze ruffles the grass in the cemetery and moves the clouds faster across the stretched canvas of the sky above. Patricia lifts her face up to the pale sun s that for a second she looks almost beautiful.

‘I don’t think the dead are lost forever anyway, do you, Ruby?’

‘Nothing’s lost forever, Patricia, it’s all there some-where. Every last pin

Kate Atkinson has taken every last pin in this story and infused it with warmth, humour and a sense of exhilaration that is as ambitious and assured as it is moving and true.

Thanks to everyone who cast a vote for this fantastic book, I enjoyed it so much.


Read On: Book

Number Read: 118

Number Remaining: 628








The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

57 Comments Leave a comment

  1. For someone who wasn’t sure how to convey her love for a book, you’ve done a fantastic job! I always struggle the most when I have to discuss a book I really loved (which is why I don’t write about most of them). Sad to think it’s easier to find problems than to sing praises.

    I’ve only read Case Histories and Life After Life, but I have always intended to read more of Atkinson’s work. Looks like this one should be on top of the pile.


  2. I always find the the books I love the most, are always the hardest to describe. It’s frustrating because at the same time I want the world to read them, but it’s so hard to convey why I love them so much.
    I have never read anything by Atkinson, but I’ve now added this one to the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Writing the review made me want to read it all over again Cleo – I think if I reread it I would pay a lot more attention to the small detail. I was a bit focused on trying to remember who everyone was for the first section that I probably missed a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can tell by your review that you really enjoyed reading the book! Your enthusiasm is quite contagious, since I feel like I need to go out to get this book *right now*. 🙂 I have yet to read anything by Atkinson, though I really don’t know why. The premise of every one of her books sounds so interesting.


  4. As others of mentioned – a great review, especially since you didn’t think you could do it justice!

    I find the more I love a book, the more incoherent I become about it – very frustrating!

    This was the first Atkinson I read and I’ve been devoted ever since, reading each of her novels as they come out, I thought it was just wonderful. Weirdly though, I’ve had Life After Life and God in Ruins on my shelf for ages – the anticipation is so huge, I think I’m waiting for time when I can sit and do nothing else but immerse myself in her world 🙂


  5. Fantastic review, Cathy. It’s 20 years since I read this book (which makes me feel old!) but parts of it are still very vivid. I’m a huge fan of Atkinson’s work, I think she’s massively underated by the literary community because she makes it looks easy (and people enjoy her books!). I genuinely recommend everything she’s written (I think A God in Ruins is her masterpiece though).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad you liked it! I read it a few years ago, but your review has brought it all back and makes me want to read it again.
    I also think I should be putting God in Ruins on my list!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have to echo TJ’s comments on your review – your enthusiasm for this book shines through! The books we love are always the hardest to write about, but you’ve done a fine job here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What an absolutely wonderful review, and I am so pleased that you loved it too! I love the comments you made, and seeing as you had no idea how to write about it initially, you have done marvellously.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a well-thought review, Cathy! It’s wonderful! I am very, very glad that you enjoyed Behind the Scenes as much as I – among many others – promised you you would. For me it is Atkinson’s first work that will define her non-Jackson-Brodie novel from 1995 onwards. If you have read Life After Life, you will see that Ursula was already haunting the pages of Behind the Scenes. And if not, then you have an amazing reading experience behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. So I LOVED Life After Life. And then decided that I needed to go back and read some more of Atkinson’s work since she’s obviously such a gifted writer. I ended up reading 2 or 3 of her other books and I HATED THEM. I haven’t read this one and although it sounds really good in your review, and I’ve heard others laud this one, I just don’t know if I can make myself read it. Aside from Life After Life, reading her books was SUCH HARD WORK. The kind of books that made me dislike reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. That first quote you gave about time moving forward sounded in my head like a person actually saying it. What excellent rhythm! Isn’t this author the one who wrote the book about the girl who always starts life over when she dies? I think this lady is obsessed with death in a creative way.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great review – ages since I read this but you’ve easily evoked memories of why I loved it & reignited a desire to read it again as I suspect I’d get even more from it now!

    I sympathise completely about reviewing books I’ve loved … busy rereading Maggie O’Farrell ‘s latest as my review notes so far are a tad gushy- keep trying to stay focused & critique but just get lost in the story…

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great review! And you’ve made me realise that I haven’t read this book, though I was sure I had. Now I don’t know which of her books it was that I have read, ages ago, but I do know I enjoyed them – must try to fit in this one or Life After Life soon…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve had this one on my bookshelf for quite some time, but passed it over time and again. Recently, I sought out and read Life After Life and A God in Ruins ahead of it. Now, I think I may have to make it a trifecta of Atkinson finishes. I love the themes and iconography that Atkinson seems, from your review, to have been exploring for so long. Looking forward to this one now–thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This is a great book. It was my first by KA but certainly not my last and I’ve enjoyed all the books of hers that I’ve read. Life after Life was very good.
    Also, I think your review is great and definitely does the book justice.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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