“Behind the Scenes at the museum” – Kate Atkinson

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“I exist! ” So begins the novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Ruby Lennox has literally just been conceived and is already starting to narrate her life story. Although many of the chapters in the book are told from Ruby’s perspective, commenting on the present, there are others that follow called footnotes. These depict stories from the past, explaining how and why certain things came to be, following various members of her family dating back to her great grandmother.

At the beginning of the book, we are not quite sure how these footnotes are relevant, but realise after a short time that they are vital to the insight and understanding of many of the complicated characters in the book. The footnotes are spread throughout the entire course of the book, which means that the beautiful story unfurls gradually, leaping from past to present, fitting together magically in front of you, up until the very last chapter. To fully understand this book, you must first fully understand the title. The notion of a “museum” is interesting.

Thinking about an actual museum, you can look at the exhibits, you can read the information on them, but you can never fully understand them. You haven’t followed them through their existence, seen what’s happened to them or felt what’s happened to them. Ruby is taking the reader through a museum of her life. The reader looks upon things that happen throughout her life, and without realising, will pass through something as small as a teaspoon or a button and not realise that they are links in the chain that makes up the “museum”.

After a sentence or statement that often confuses the reader, there will be an instruction such as “(see Footnote (ii))”. It is only after we read that particular footnote that we understand the previous chapter, thus, we are going ‘Behind the scenes’. The grandmother of Bunty, mother of Nell and great grandmother of Ruby, Alice, is the first member of the family the reader explores in Footnote (i). It is in this footnote that the button that Gillian swallows in the chapter before is explained to the reader.

Such a tiny object introduces us to people who we haven’t even come across in the book yet, but whose stories we will find out in due course. A tiny button starts the reader on a journey of understanding every character, whether it’s Bunty, Alice, Rachel, Nell or anyone else. I think that’s one of the amazing things about this book, the author can rest so much on one tiny thing and everything can be revealed from it.

So the title “Behind the scenes at the museum” tells us that we are going behind the scenes, finding out much more that there appears to be on the outside, hidden things, secrets whether they’re good or bad, in Ruby Lennox’s life. But it’s not her life; it’s more like her own museum. A museum of new and old things, of good and bad. Another way of putting it would be like watching a play; you can see the ‘surface’ or the ‘result’, but you cannot tell what goes on behind the scenes. There is no obvious ‘storyline’ as such in the book until the end, or at least the reader isn’t meant to sense one.

We just follow ruby through her sad and incomplete life. Now and then in the story, something will happen or someone will say something that will get the reader wondering what on earth they mean. For example, towards the beginning of the book Ruby is sent away. She is only about four years old at the time, but she is still made to stay with Bunty’s sister, Babs for a long time. She doesn’t know why, and neither does the reader. The reader is in a permanent state of confusion throughout the chapter, almost feeling the same as Ruby. The author has written this in a very clever way.

It may make the reader perplexed, but it also leaves them craving an answer. It makes them read on feverishly to find out why. However, we do not find out exactly why until the very end of the book. Many times, strange things are mentioned, such as in chapter four, Ruby is taken to visit a medium who tells her that her sister says “not to worry about her”. Ruby is obviously confused and asks her Aunt if one of her other sisters, Gillian and Patricia are dead.

Her aunt tells her not to be clever (although Ruby thinks that she suits this! and the reader is left bewildered, yet again. Many other questionable things happen too. At one point, Bunty goes away and Patricia, Gillian and Ruby go on a search for the letter she has left. They find the letter, and they also find a locket containing two tiny photos of what look like ruby. Ruby points out to Gillian that Bunty keeps photos of her next to her bed, “‘Oh yea,’ she [Gillian] says sarcastically. ‘She’s got that there because it’s a photograph of P- and Patricia digs her hard in the ribs so that she squeals. There are many instances where people stutter after they say ‘P-.. ‘ and the reader is slowly meant to be noticing how often it happens.

Bunty also refers to ‘the accident’ a few times; again, the reader is mystified. Finally, Ruby finds out a dark secret that had been kept from her for 16 years. It is told to her by Bunty’s boyfriend (this is after her father is dead), Mr Belling. “‘You killed your own sister, Ruby! You killed your own sister! … ‘ He shouted… ‘I did not kill my own sister! ‘ I [Ruby] hissed back at him. ‘She was run over! ” (She’s referring to Gillian). “‘I [Mr Belling] don’t mean that one, you stupid little girl, I mean your twin sister! ‘” Here comes the final plot twist. Ruby had a twin sister, Pearl. There was an accident when she was about four where Pearl fell through thin ice and drowned. Ruby got blamed because Gillian had feared that it would be her who’d be blamed because she had told Pearl to go out onto the thin ice. After the accident, Ruby suffered from amnesia, which is why she has no recollection of it, and why she’d never told anyone that it was actually Gillian’s fault.

When the reader finds this out, every single unanswered question in the book is suddenly and finally resolved. Things like the two pictures in the locket, the ‘accident’, and the way that everyone nearly calls her Pearl before they can remember she’s Ruby. We have looked into Ruby’s past, Ruby’s present and even slightly into her future. We’ve read her thoughts, acknowledged her fears and explored things she herself had forgotten. The reader has truly gone behind the scenes.

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