Blasts from the Past: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Hard to imagine a time when Kate Atkinson wasn’t a literary household name, albeit one seemingly doomed not to win another literary prize after bagging both the Whitbread First Novel and Book of the Year Awards with Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I was a bookseller at the time, handed a proof by my Transworld rep who promised it would be the next big thing, hardly an infrequent occurrence but he proved to be spot on. It sold and sold.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the story of Ruby Lennox told in her own voice from the moment of her conception, heralded by a few grunts and groans from her father while her mother feigns sleep. Ruby and her family live above their pet shop in the shadow of York Minster. Theirs is a story of humdrum family life in the ‘50s – endless housework, minor peccadilloes on the part of Ruby’s father, homework, weddings and funerals. Interwoven with Ruby’s story is that of her great-grandmother, her grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins as they struggle through two world wars. But there are small gaps in the narrative, hints of something amiss. Family secrets, long hidden, begin to surface – one so devastating that it overwhelms Ruby even as it explains so much that has been puzzling in her life.

You could say Atkinson’s writing career to date is a game of two halves – the Jackson Brodie books with their popular appeal which translated beautifully to TV, and novels such as Life After Life and Human Croquet which dip a toe in postmodern water. She’s a wonderfully inventive writer whose work continues to delight her many fans, me included.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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33 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)”

  1. Oh yes. I remember reading this years ago, and forthwith placing Atkinson on my list of Must Read Authors. Perhaps I too should revisit it (but I probably won’t – so much to do, so little time). Nevertheless, this is an excellent idea, this revisiting. I’m tempted!

  2. I adored this when it came out! It felt like a breath of fresh air. I was a student and buying a new book was a big thing for me given my financial situation, but I’ve such a clear memory of buying it in the student union bookshop. I don’t always have such clear memories of where I first encountered books but this stayed with me. Such a great writer.

  3. I’ve read five Atkinson novels. I read three of Brodie novels + Life After Life & A God in Ruins. The ending of A God in Ruins was brave and interesting and very well-researched. I enjoy and admire Atkinson, although her style has an ‘un-thought-out-ness’ (to coin a term) that can start to feel a bit same-y. Also a bit like no one would ever dare edit her! I’ve still never read Behind the Scenes and I feel I am missing out there. Will rectify eventually!

  4. This is a brilliant book, I remember how fresh it felt when it first came out, that dual time line! I didn’t realise Jackson Brodie had appeared on tv?!

    1. Isn’t it, just! As I remember all the Jacksons apart from the newest have been adapted by the BBC starring Jason Isaacs who is an excellent Jackson. Hope you can track them down.

  5. I love Kate Atkinson’s range, but she’s an author whose work I either feel really hot or cold about for some reason. Behind the Scenes is one that stands out in my memory as being particularly wonderful – one I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

  6. It’s interesting to hear about one of Atkinson’s early books almost 30 years on. Has her writing changed much over the years, or is this similar in style to her recent non-Brodie books (e.g. Transcription and Gaiety)?

  7. I’m not such an Atkinson fan as you I don’t think. But I did read this and a couple other of her earlier novels. I remember enjoying this one enormously. Nice to be reminded of it.

  8. I requested it from the library just a couple of days before your post – now I’m about 100 pages in and really enjoying it. The tone, the characters, the various historical periods… Am very curious to see where it will lead and whether I too will be surprised by the family secrets.

      1. I’m back, having finished the book. Loved it! I loved Ruby’s voice (I was wondering whether Atkinson would manage to sustain it throughout, and she does) and even though I knew there was something “hidden” waiting to surprise me, I really didn’t expect how dark it would turn. I also really enjoyed the older family stories and how good she is at making all the different settings come to life. So, Kate Atkinson and Ruby Lennox have made another happy reader.

        1. Thanks so much for coming back letting me know how you got on, and delighted that you enjoyed it. I’m not keen on child narrators at all but Atkinson nails it with Ruby. I agree with you about the secret – quite shocking the first time I read it.

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