Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

For those of the book club returning to this book, it retained its ability to be simultaneously sad but funny. There was a general consensus that it was a worthwhile if sad/downbeat read.

The discussion turned to the fact that all the parent–child relationships depicted were dysfunctional, and even the close sibling relationships depicted were not enough to keep them together, or even in contact, were things that the discussion repeatedly circled back to. Especially poignant against the background of these distant, unsatisfying relationships was the fact that her two surviving daughters rallied around Bunty’s death bed, allowing themselves the closure that the affection that they had craved would never materialise now. In an interesting cycle of conjunctions, the nurse attending Bunty seemed likely to have been the daughter Doreen had had to give up earlier in her life – Doreen who provided the single week of something most closely mothering that the sisters (Bunty’s daughters) are shown to have had. It is sadly fitting that Doreen is one of George’s mistresses; the only moments of happiness Bunty is shown to experience in her marriage are whilst she is having an affair. Some of the depictions of family life especially hit home since they seemed familiar to the readers’ own experiences.

The structure of the novel was another fertile topic for discussion. On the one hand, a more linear narrative would perhaps have made it easier to place (and recognise) characters; but it would have given away major plot points. In a novel riddled with loss and death, the most shocking of these was the story of how Ruby’s twin Pearl was lost, and the narrative the family subsequently constructed. The moving backwards and forwards in time also allowed for parallels between the generations to surface: absent (physically or mentally) mothers, unhappy marriages people settled for in the absence of other options, disappearing siblings – but also the dual horrors of the two World Wars, suggesting that the weight of history has flattened out individual lives. The book’s title – the ‘museum’ – lends weight to this sense that it is a chronicle of a specific time rather than a story about people. On the theme of war, Frank, a generally uninspiring character, has one of the most memorable moments of clarity: his inability to articulate anything about his experiences of the horrors of war in the presence of clean, unaware civilians, as personified by Lillian and Nell, sums up the impossibility of explaining reality to those who aren’t expecting that iteration of it.

The ending of the novel is unexpectedly positive: Ruby and Patricia have both achieved at least some of their (professional) dreams – those at least have not been lost in what Ruby calls the cupboard of lost things of life.

Some favourite characters: Ruby, Lillian

Sympathised with: Alice, Bunty (although that didn’t make her particularly likeable), Nell

Disliked: George, Frederick (with a sinking sense that there weren’t many positive male characters in the book: Albert and Edmund are killed too quickly for them to be properly introduced to the reader).

The next book for discussion will be: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

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