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.
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.
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