Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson


This is the final book of of Kate Atkinson that I am reading which is also her first book and it won her the Whitbread Book of the year.

This book is a biography of three generations of women – Ruby Lennox, her mother Bunty and her grandmother Nell – cleverly portrayed in a main story and footnotes so that readers are clear who is telling which story.

I have enjoyed all Atkinson’s books so far because she has a way of ‘growing up’ with the voice of the protagonist from a child to a woman. In this case, the voice of Ruby starts as an embryo on the night she was conceived.  Ruby is the youngest of three daughters of Bunty, coming after Patricia and Gillian. The story is set in York in the 50s. Reading it allows me to imagine how my mother and her five sisters grew up in that era, in a household full of estrogen, Elvis Presley, O’levels, boys, choices and marriages.

It’s tragic how similar the three women from three different generations are similar, in that their sole purpose upon reaching adulthood was to settle for a man and a life of domesticity, only to realise too late that this was not the life they had hoped for. (I, on the other hand, growing up in the 70s and 80s, was groomed to climb the corporate ladder, but instead settled for a life of domesticity.)

In a way, this book touches me in the manner Atkinson portrays how a daughter looks at her mother, very much like how my sister and I see our relationship with our mother. Daughters often feel our mothers did not ‘mother’ well. There was this feeling of dis-satisfaction between mothers and daughters through the generations in the book, between Nell and Bunty, and between Bunty and her own daughters.  And even when Bunty loses Gillian in an accident, her relationship with her remaining daughters did not improve, such that at Bunty’s funeral, Patricia and Ruby were ‘dried eyed’.

Girls growing up in the 50-60 eras were asked, what would you put in your bottom drawers? It seemed a common question then but I have never heard of the expression. The bottom drawer is a chest for a girl to store the stuff in preparation for her life out of her maternal home, usually for her marriage.

Although written in the present tense as the story unfolds as she grows from 1951 to 1992, Ruby Lennox nevertheless looks back at the development of her life and that of her peers, in hindsight, and wonders at the choices they had made, especially in the choice of husbands, hers as well as her friend. This book is especially familiar to Singaporeans as Bunty prepares for what is similar to our PSLE in order to  be admitted to the secondary school of her choice, and how her mother Bunty, basically left it to her to study well, and how Patricia fails the O’levels, and Bunty her A’levels history which changes the course of her plans.

Parenting and choices aside, the book is filled with nostalgia as the family goes on a driving holiday to Scotland, much like how my family used to drive to Malaysia for holiday.

Another aspect of the book I like is the Lost Property Cupboard theory of the afterlife (In many ways, Atkinson has hinted that she is an Atheist) – when we die we are taken to a great Lost Property Cupboard where all the things we have ever lost have been kept for us – every hairgrip, every button and pencil, every tooth, every earring and key, every pin. All the library books, all the cats that never came back, all the coins, the watches. And perhaps, too, the other less tangible things – tempers and patience (perhaps Patricia’s virginity will be there), religion (Kathleen has lost hers), meaning, innocence (mine) and oceans of time ‘(Do you know how much time we’ve lost waiting for you, Ruby?’).  

Sometimes, life does not go according to plan, and we make do with what we are given and the best choice we feel at that moment, bad or not. This book reminds us of that.

About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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