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Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

“In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense.”

WINNER OF THE WHITBREAD (COSTA) BOOK OF THE YEAR

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Ruby Lennox was conceived grudgingly by Bunty and born while her father, George, was in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster telling a woman in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he wasn't married.  Bunty had never wanted to marry George, but here she was, stuck with three little girls in a flat above the pet shop in an ancient street beneath York Minster.

Ruby tells the story of The Family, from the day at the end of the nineteenth century when a travelling French photographer catches frail, beautiful Alice and her children, like flowers in amber, to the startling, witty and memorable events of Ruby's own life.

 

'An astounding book...without doubt one of the finest novels I have read for years'   The Times

‘Delivers its jokes and its tragedies as efficiently as Dickens…outrageously funny on almost every page…will dazzle readers for years to come’   Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books

'Little short of a masterpiece…fizzing with wit and energy, Kate Atkinson’s hilarious novel made me laugh and cry'   Daily Mail

CHAPTER ONE

1951

Conception

I exist! i am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.

My father’s name is George and he is a good ten years older than my mother, who is now snoring into the next pillow. My mother’s name is Berenice but ­ everyone has always called her Bunty.

‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name? A plain Jane, a maternal Mary? Or something romantic, something that doesn’t sound quite so much like a girl’s comic – an Aurora, a Camille? Too late now. Bunty’s name will be ‘Mummy’ for a few years yet, of course, but after a while there won’t be a single maternal noun (mummy, mum, mam, ma, mama, mom, marmee) that seems appropriate and I more or less give up calling her anything. Poor Bunty.

We live in a place called ‘Above the Shop’ which is not a strictly accurate description as both the kitchen and dining-room are on the same level as the Shop itself and the topography also includes the satellite area of the Back Yard. The Shop (a pet shop) is in one of the ancient streets that cower beneath the looming dominance of York Minster. In this street lived the first printers and the stained-glass craftsmen that filled the windows of the city with coloured light. The Ninth Legion Hispana that conquered the north marched up and down our street, the via praetoria of their great fort, before they disappeared into thin air. Guy Fawkes was born here, Dick Turpin was hung a few streets away and Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city. Who is to say which of these is real and which a fiction?

These streets seethe with history; the building that our Shop occupies is centuries old and its walls tilt and its floors slope like a medieval funhouse. There has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due portion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our backs. Our ghosts are particularly thick on the staircases, of which there are many. They have much to gossip about. You can hear them if you listen hard, the plash of water from Viking oars, the Harrogate Tally-Ho rattling over the cobblestones, the pat and shuffle of ancient feet at an Assembly Rooms’ ball and the scratch-scratch of the Reverend Sterne’s quill.

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'Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a book I thought about for five years and then I wrote in about five months. It's the first person narrative of a girl called Ruby Lennox. It begins with her conception and I stole very heavily from Tristram Shandy at the beginning of this book.

Ruby is an unhappy girl, she has an unfortunate life, she has secret and buried tragedy in her life that, throughout the book in a way, her task is to discover what happened to her, because all books, ultimately, are about identity.

Running under this book, I was always keen on the structure that - because there's always something behind the closed door, because there's always a secret - each chapter has a footnote, which is a glimpse into the past of this particular family. In a way they look random, but they're not. They build up a kind of tapestry of this family's past. 

I think what I hadn't realised until I'd finished the book was I wanted to write about what it was like to be English, and I think it's not the greatest picture of what it's like to be English, but it was what English history has meant on a personal note for people. So Behind the Scenes at the Museum is, in a way, behind the propaganda, it's behind the official histor, it's how it felt to be a lower middle class family with all the great events going on around you that don't impinge on you, unless you happen to be killed by them - which several of the people in this book are.

And it's a book about women. The men tend to die young or get killed off. It's a book that I think is ultimately a triumphant book because it's about the self triumphing over all the terrible things that happen to any one individual in life. 

It's a book for which I have a great fondness, and which, I think, was the basis of everything else I write. It was a way of me finding my own voice.'

Taken from a video interview recorded for 'Meet the Author'.

 

For Reading Group topics, see Resources.

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Reviews for Behind the Scenes at the Museum

'Delivers its jokes and its tragedies as efficiently as Dickens...outrageously funny on almost every page...will dazzle readers for years to come'

London Review of Books

'A debut novel of astonishing confidence and skill...Acutely observant, overflowing with good jokes, it is the work of an author who loves her characters and sets them playing with gleeful energy'

Spectator

'An astounding book...without doubt one of the finest novels I have read for years'

The Times

'Little short of a masterpiece...Fizzing with wit and energy, Kate Atkinson's hilarious novel made me laugh and cry'

Daily Mail

'A blinding debut from a Yorkshire mother-of-two who could be Alan Bennett's baby sister...straight-up simplicity veils the depth, poignancy and poetry of her story'

Time Out

'Enchanting. It hops with sprightly omniscence from past to future and back again'

The Sunday Times

'A really gripping, emotionally satisfying family saga written with warmth and wit. I've re-read it countless times'

Red

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