Kate Atkinson - Behind the Scenes at the Museum - (1995)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
How many books have you read recently that begin with 25 pages conducted, quite amicably, from inside the womb? This one, told in part through the eyes of unwanted baby Ruby Lennox (conception onwards), and in part through the tragic history of her family, is like two great novels in one, opening with surely one of the best first sentences ever: ‘I exist!’
Whether documenting a soldier crossing a battlefield to save a dog, or telling us Ruby’s mother’s words on seeing her daughter for the first time – ‘Looks like a piece of meat, take it away’ – Kate Atkinson’s writing is masterfully controlled. Never overstated, never over-dramatic, she doesn’t feel the need to explain how shocking events are. Indeed, she specialises in the kind of arm’s length delivery that Raymond Carver made his own, and this comes strongly to mind while reading both storylines, which cross decades of family history and the whole of Ruby’s life. For example, the horrors of both World Wars are often understood through Ruby’s female ancestors, a neat device which allows the reader to see just how little they understand of the brutal realities, but also how reluctant the men are to tell them about it. This contrasts perfectly with the naive, upbeat delivery of Ruby’s child voice.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is weighted perfectly, changing between its two main strands at just the right moment and entertaining at all points in between. When, on Coronation Day, a two-year-old Ruby looks outside to see her father humping against a wall someone who is definitely not her mother, the magic is in a childish preoccupation with her lost tricycle. This mature debut will surely inspire decades from now, and shows how powerful fiction can be in making us understand real life.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.