Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson, Kate - Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Several years ago, out of the blue, my big sister got an e-mail from a man called Jim who lived in Australia and happened to be a second cousin we didn’t know we had.  Jim was researching the Nesbitt family tree, and one of its branches led him to us in England. Other branches led to America and Canada, and more previously un-guessed at relations. Maybe some of us will meet up one day.  I like to think so, anyway.  In the meantime Jim’s set up a family blogspot where we can post old pictures of our shared ancestors.

No-one I’ve spoken to about this seems to think it’s odd to be in touch with a complete stranger when we’ve nothing in common but the same great-great-great grandfather.  That says a lot about our fascination with Family.

And it’s Family that’s at the heart of Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which won the Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year award in 1995.

Skipping backwards and forwards between past, present, and future, Ruby Lennox tells the story of her Family from her great-grandmother Alice, “consigned to eternity” courtesy of photographs from 1888 of her and her children, down through the intervening two generations, to the events of her own life.

“The past’s what you take with you,” says Ruby, and the structure of the book cleverly links the past and present, as Ruby’s life unfolds in linear progression, chapter by chapter, with a “footnote” added to each that takes us back in time.

Ruby is an engaging and witty narrator.  It’s a shame, though, that we aren’t given the family tree that Ruby’s sister, Patricia, has paid to have drawn up (maybe it’s provided in some versions of the book but it’s not in the one I have) because I found it so hard to keep track of who’s who across all the generations that I ended up sketching out a partial one for myself (see below).

And occasionally the links are overdone – so that the nurse who tends Ruby’s mother seems to be the daughter of her dad’s lover (“Auntie Doreen”) by her mother’s cousin, Edmund.  That’s a little too neat for my taste!

But overall, this is an amusing, absorbing read that calls to the Family-love in all of us.  So: who do you think you are?

** Worth reading

PS Thanks, Jim, for keeping the Family flame alive.

Alice (m Frederick)

  • Ada
  • Lawrence
  • Tom
  • Albert
  • Lillian
    • Edmund
  • Nell (m Frank)
    • Clifford (m Gladys)
      • Adrian
    • Babs (m Sidney)
      • Daisy & Rose
    • Bunty (m George)
      • Patricia
      • Gillian
      • Ruby
    • Betty
    • Ted

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