Kate Atkinson Essay - Critical Essays

Atkinson, Kate


Kate Atkinson Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Award: Whitbread Awards for Fiction for Book of the Year and First Novel

Atkinson is a British short story writer and novelist.

Atkinson, described at times uncharitably as a middled-aged chambermaid, was awarded the Whitbread Prize over fellow nominee Salman Rushdie with some critical disapproval. When the clamor abated, however, positive reviews of Behind the Scenes at the Museum dominated. Described as an ambitious, well-crafted first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows the life of the irrepressible Ruby Lennox from conception (an event of which she is aware, and opinionated) well into adulthood. Ruby is gifted with an omnipotence beyond her years, as well as the ability to see the ghosts of her ancestors who inhabit the tiny home she shares with her parents and siblings above her father's pet shop. Critics remarked on the richness of Atkinson's characterization as well as her skill in conveying the multigenerational connections established as everyday objects and events spark memories or preview future additions to the family. Ben Macintyre remarked that the setting and everyday events of Ruby's story are typical of Yorkshire, a place of "grimness, grit, and grandeur." "Like Yorkshire itself," Macintyre remarks, "Behind the Scenes at the Museum is all sharp edges; it is a caustic and affectionate portrayal of a world in which bleak but nourishing wit is the only safety net." In addition to the Whitbread Award, Atkinson is also the recipient of a 1993 Ian St. James Award for short stories.

Principal Works

Behind the Scenes at the Museum (novel) 1995


Publishers Weekly (review date 30 October 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 44, October 30, 1995, p. 46.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Behind the Scenes at the Museum.]

The narrator's insistent voice and breezy delivery animates this enchanting first novel [Behind the Scenes at the Museum] by a British writer who won one of the 1993 Ian St. James Awards for short stories. Ruby Lennox is a quirky, complex character who relates the events of her life and those of her dysfunctional family with equal parts humor, fervor and candor—starting with her moment of conception in York, England, in 1959: "I exist!" Ruby then describes the family she is to join. Her parents own a pet shop; her mother, Bunty, bitterly rues having married her philandering husband, George, and daydreams about what her life might have been. Ruby has two older sisters, willful Gillian and melancholy Patricia. Through its ambitious structure, the novel also charts five generations and more than a century of Ruby's family history, as reported in "footnotes" that follow relevant chapters. (For example, a passage about a pink glass button reveals the story of its original owner, Ruby's great-grandmother Alice, who will abandon her young family and run off with a French magician.) Ruby's richly imagined account includes both the details of daily life and the several tragic events that punctuate the family's mundane existence. Though the "footnote" entries are not quite as gripping as those rendered in Ruby's richly vernacular, energetic recitation, Atkinson's ebullient narrative style captures the troubled Lennox family with wit and poignant accuracy.

Georgia Jones-Davis (review date 27 December 1995)

SOURCE: "From the Mouth of a Babe, Details of Ordinary Lives," in Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1995, p. 5.

[In the positive review below, Jones-Davis describes Behind the Scenes at the Museum as "a powerhouse of storytelling."]

Ruby Lennox, the heroine of Kate Atkinson's stunning first novel, out-Copperfields David Copperfield. While Dickens' David began narrating at his birth, Atkinson's narrator begins working at the moment of her conception.

And hers is indeed a quest to see if she will be the hero of her own story. For the first 40 pages of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, we are being guided by an embryo with an all-seeing, wise-guy take on the world. She's living in York, England, a place so rife with history "there's no room for the living."

She knows the future, she knows the past. Her mostly tragic narrative about a completely ordinary, working-class family will hop, skip, and swirl backward and forward through time. Every member of the various generations introduced will fall into his or her place in a huge, albeit confusing family tree. (Is Clifford Bunty's uncle or brother? Whose son is Adrian? Whatever happened to Auntie Eliza? Auntie Eliza—"about as common as you can get. We know this has something to do with the fact that her blond hair has coal-black roots and she is wearing immense rhinestone earrings.")

Ruby, our narrator, is the third child of George and Bunty, who met in 1944. When the novel opens in the early '50s, lean, gray years in postwar Britain, they live in a dark, dank, cramped, ancient building above the family pet shop. Ruby alone sees the ghosts of all of the occupants from over the centuries. They don't bother anybody, and tend to congregate on the many winding narrow staircases.

To the little girl, the spirits inhabit the place; somehow they seem more comforting than her family. Her oldest sister, Patricia, is a dour 5-year-old; imperious Gillian is already a terror at 3; father George sells budgies, puppies and kittens with no more feeling for his merchandise than the medical supplies he will...

(The entire section is 893 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 10 January 1996)

SOURCE: "New Voices Spin Tales of Fiction, Mostly Fiction," in The Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 1996, p. 14.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers a mixed review of Behind the Scenes at the Museum.]

From England, more specifically the cathedral city of York, comes an ambitious, exuberant first novel that takes the form of a young woman narrating her autobiography, starting with the moment of her conception and dipping into past generations of her family while moving forward through her own girlhood.

The narrator of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum is Ruby Lennox, youngest daughter of a family that lives "above the shop," in this case, a pet shop. Dad is a hard-drinking skirt chaser, Mom a mean-spirited bundle of resentments, big sister Patricia a model of moral and scholastic rectitude, and middle sister Gillian a bratty egotist. As for Ruby—she is, in her own words, "alive … a precious jewel … a drop of blood," with an uncanny ability to perceive and describe, everything going on around her, even before she is born!

It doesn't take the fetal Ruby very long to notice—with some dismay—that she is not an eagerly anticipated arrival. "Still, never mind—the sun is high in the sky and it's going to be a beautiful day again," remarks the optimistic embryo. "The future is like a cupboard full of light and all you have to do is...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Ben Macintyre (review date 31 March 1996)

SOURCE: "Yorkshire Terrors," in The New York Times Book Review, March 31, 1996, pp. 13-14.

[In the following review, Macintyre praises Atkinson's portrayal of Yorkshire life in Behind the Scenes at the Museum.]

Yorkshire has an established and self-nurtured reputation as a place of heroic complaint. Nothing is ever quite so bad as it is in Yorkshire. The weather is worse, life is harder, the coal mines are deeper and darker and the scenery harsher, you will be told, than in other, softer lands.

Until, of course, someone unlucky enough to be born outside Yorkshire should dare to chime in to this litany of grievance, at which point the Yorkshire native...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Hilary Mantel (review date 4 April 1996)

SOURCE: "Shop!," in London Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 7, April 4, 1996, pp. 23-4.

[In the following positive review, Mantel lambastes the London critics who mistreated Atkinson upon her winning of the Whitbread Award for Behind the Scenes at the Museum, then presents an extensive analysis of the book.]

On the day after Kate Atkinson's first novel [Behind the Scenes at the Museum] won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian's headline read: 'Rushdie makes it a losing double.' Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year's Whitbread is a damp squib. But read on. 'A 44-year-old...

(The entire section is 2867 words.)