I had been wanting to re-read Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson since the day I closed the final page on it back in 1996. Looking back I now discover that I read it immediately after Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel which, quite by coincidence, I have just started again too. I very rarely read a book twice so this is all quite an occasion.
I must mention the cover of my edition too. It's the original one, newer edtions replaced with something to my mind much less significant. Examining it closely I see that the collage speaks with clarity of the book as well as signifying the overlapping and repetition that brings new meaning to old and supposed truths...the happy smiling girl with the smiling dog on the swing, the Proustian madeleines, the hint of a parrot.
Those of you who have read Behind the Scenes at the Museum will know exactly why one read may not be enough. There is a final revelation that on a second read has all the clues in place, but each and every one of which I had missed back in 1996.
I remember being completely swept away by the book as well as being plagued by recall about things like my red and yellow Mobo scooter, and Champion the Wonder Horse (the children's TV programme) and Judy (the comic) and Summer Holiday (the film) and Look and Learn (the magazine) and trying to do the Twist (the dance) and then a compulsory trip into the loft to find my Polyfotos, just to be sure I hadn't dreamt such things existed.
I hadn't...they did.
Polyfotos were clearly a la mode in the early 1950s. A sheet of small studio prints from which I think a 'best' one was to be chosen for enlarging and framing. Mine show me pulling a range of rather confused What-Am-I-Doing-Here faces and cherubic poses as I wrestle with a purse and a Sooty glove puppet. Ruby Lennox's are much more mysterious.
Ruby, a child of the 1950s, the seemingly all-knowing omniscient narrator, 'the big pitcher' who soaks up all the information around her presenting it for the reader with plenty of gaps and omissions according to her level of understanding. Ruby lives with her highly complicated family in the city of York, where her father runs a pet shop with a flat above, and where Bunty and George and their daughters live in very close confines. I invariably create a genogram-style family tree when I am reading a novel like this, I find it helps me visualise and make connections and remember them as I read, and also says a great deal to me about a writer's technical skill. Mine is a mass and mess of lines and arrows, heaven knows how Kate Atkinson kept track of this lot.
But what struck me most on this very different second read, and reflecting in the knowledge of my recent read of Life After Life, was just what an alchemist with time Kate Atkinson is. Keeping a firm grasp on her character's lives, she can play with time effortlessly, and does so in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, where the narrative slips from present to immediate past, to more distant past and back again, and all cleverly interwoven are the roots of present behaviours rooted in past experiences. Then linking that time and one era with another via a series of footnotes, and frequently with reference to a talisman passed down the generations which offers regular prompts for the reader... perhaps a photograph, or a button, or a lucky rabbit's foot.
How did that start??
And now I am thinking... do I really remember rabbit's foot brooches, a sort of furry paw encrusted with jewels and nestling on the lapel of a woman's jacket??
Oh ye Gods, I've just looked, I didn't dream those either...
These talismen each of relevance and invested with deep significance by those who own them at any given time. Word passed down of their importance, which all set me thinking about all the stuff in our loft. It's not the first time I've imagined and clearly understood its impermanence. 'Stuff' that only means something to me, hard for me to part with, but will just be a flippin' nuisance for someone else to have take to the tip when I'm long gone, but it all gave new meaning to the title of the book... the stories behind the 'stuff' of people's lives, that we all go and look at in museums, and wonder.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a book of so many hidden threads too, and I now discover great deal to miss on one read.
Remember the bottom drawer. the accumulation of things that a girl would take into her future life as part of a couple...
Remember the smelly old lost property cupboard at school...one hockey boot x thirty, the lone halves of a pair of something else, Aertex shirts with the compulsory embroidered initials top left, and half the time people don't know they've even lost it. Well, the smelly cupboard features here too. The actual one, but also a much more significant one, and an item of 'lost property' must be retrieved for Ruby that she too didn't know she had lost.
The revelation when it comes spins a serious and very moving note in the midst of an erstwhile frequently very funny book. The humour dissolves into a moment of extreme emotion for Ruby, and surprisingly for this reader too, and as the concealments, lies and betrayals were laid bare I was affected even more for knowing it was coming. Think of that precious stone found in an oyster that has irritated itself into existence around a piece of grit for years, growing unseen until eventually discovered and becoming something beautiful to be treasured... that analogy will make sense if you have read the book.
But interesting too as I read, to spot the foreshadowing of themes that seem to have come to fruition in Life After Life. There is a moment when someone looking at a photograph says...
'I want to rescue this lost woman from what's going to happen to her (time). Dive into the picture, pluck her out.'
Then there is that use of snow, the sense of deja vue and the certainty of premonition that all felt fully realised in Life After Life.
Taking pity on my plight at discovering a fraction of an an online edition of Hilary Mantel's review of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and then forking out for the rest of it one evening because I just had to read it that minute, The London Review of Books have very kindly given me three months free access to their archives. I am having a whale of a time in there so more of my discoveries soon, but that orginal review places the book, and Kate Atkinson's surprise victory at the Whitbread (now the Costa) Prize, into a very 1990's context. Salman Rushdie had been expected to win and even one of the judges (Julian Critchley) declared in less than complimentary fashion (suggests Hilary) that Kate Atkinson's book 'resembles the Life of Jackie Charlton as written by Beryl Bainbridge'. There was much abuse and insult hurled in Kate Atkinson's direction, and some unpleasant probing into her private life apparently, and all we can say now is last laugh etc.
Hilary Mantel flies the flag for Kate Atkinson and her debut novel, taking issue with 'lowering headlines' and the gender-biased criticism that she suggests liken the book to 'the literary equivalent of suet pudding' just because it is written by a woman who at the time happened to be working as a chamber maid, and because it was set in the North of England, rather than say South America, or Sri Lanka. Describing the book as 'an uncanny reproduction of autobiography' and proceeeding to highlight the authorial 'dexterity' in her own inimitable style, Hilary Mantel's generous review is a stunning and clearly necessary defence of women's writing that still bears relevance today.
Final words to our 'ilary on Behind the Scenes at the Museum...
'Combining vast creative energy with a cast-iron technique, this is a book which will survive any amount of ignorant carping and boorishness and will dazzle readers for years to come...'
I'll go with that, and with this too,
'It is almost as good, in fact, as that as yet unborn masterpiece, for which the millions will queue : the Life of Jackie Charlton, as written by Beryl Bainbridge.'