Kate Atkinson Criticism

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Publishers Weekly (review date 30 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 sell later, after the disastrous pet-shop fire. He plays around with the ladies too, on nights out with his old mate Walter, the meat man. So he's not around the night that Bunty gives birth to his third daughter, Ruby.

Remember, we're hearing all this from...

(The entire section is 5,456 words.)