Book Review: Behind The Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I dismissed Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, Behind The Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson’s quite brutally in a review for my university newspaper (rather uninspiringly called Ripple). So disgusted was I by the opening page, I discarded it and consigned Atkinson to the list of authors I Will Never Read Again (this list exists entirely in my head).

Then, a few months ago, I was lent Life After Life, her Bailey’s Prize nominated novel (it was simply the Women’s prize the year of her nom) and loved it. Since then I’ve been on something of an Atkinson feast, eating up her novels in an attempt to satisfy myself after those years of wilful self-denial.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum is the latest in her back catalogue to make it to the top of my  To Read Pile (this does exist in physical form) and I can now stop admonishing my undergrad self’s disregard for it. While it’s a lush read full of wry wit and juicy descriptions, it’s definitely Early Atkinson. There’s a great deal to admire in the 400+ page novel that sweeps between generations of the Lennox family, with the youngest Ruby, born in 1952, narrating our journey through the years. There’s plenty of trademark Atkinson word play and amusing observations, but the narrative arc gets rather lost in all the cleverness in a way that she learnt to avoid in Life After Life where the complex plot is dealt with so deftly (practise makes perfect as  Behind The Scene…’s Ruby Lennox would no doubt observe).

Protagonist, Ruby Lennox narrates her life from the minute she is conceived during an inspiring union between between her permanently furious mother, Bunty and oafish father, George and we see everything through her sardonic eyes. Ruby feels adrift in the Lennox family,a family defined by tragedy, wrath and an inability to be happy, and is convinced from the minute she is dispelled from her mother’s womb that she was swapped at birth. But as she takes us back to visit her great-grandmother Alice and her large brood – amongst them Ruby’s grandmother Nell – the genetic patterns are firmly stamped in Ruby’s DNA.

There are large dramas  – the Lennoxs have a propensity to die young –  in among the smaller domestic crises.  Atkinson’s skill is not only finding the poetic in the mundane, but the mundane in the dramatic. Ruby’s life is brutal , her dissatisfied mother has a tongue as fierce as barbed wire and a heart hardened by unfulfillment, and Ruby’s childhood is strewn with grief and loneliness – I don’t think she once gets a hug. But there is a joyfulness to Atkinson’s writing, which is just as well as there’s a lot of it in Behind The Scenes… as we meander from Edwardian to post-war times and back again. And there’s so many characters, many of them dead, that they clutter the story like the ghosts that lurk on the stairs of the living quarters above the Lennox’s pet shop (Above The Shop – Atkinson loves a capital letter for effect As Do I).

The York-born author has grown into her clever yet chummy style. The humour that pumps through her novels reminds me very much of Hilary Mantel’s wry observations – I was reading the Wolf Hall author’s Beyond Black concurrently and the stories would sometimes weave themselves together in my mind so similar are their styles. And like Early Mantel, Early Atkinson is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan, even if it’s just for the chance to saw you prefer their early work best – although in my case it’s quite the reverse.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott