BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM
Guardian book club: A slew of deaths
John Mullan on Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Week one: deaths
Saturday 18 October 2008
It is hardly surprising that Ruby Lennox, the narrator of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, should, aged 17, fantasise about her own funeral - the open coffin strewn with flowers, a church filled not just with friends and family but also "an admiring Leonard Cohen and a soulful Terence Stamp", and with Maria Callas singing. (It is 1968.) For the novel, which is her story of her family, has more deaths than even Dickens would have dared include. "As a family, we are genetically disposed towards having accidents."
Ruby is an all-seeing narrator. In numbered and dated chapters, she narrates her life, in the present tense. In alternating sections - "Footnotes" - she recovers episodes from the lives of her forebears. The high mortality rate in these parts of the novel is perhaps historically unsurprising: golden-haired Ada, who would have become Ruby's great-aunt, dies of diphtheria at 12, like many a Victorian child; in the Edwardian age, grandmother Nell's sweetheart Percy is proposing to her in one paragraph, and dead from a ruptured appendix in the next.
History is a blackly comic trickster. Frank, the narrator's grandfather, who survived the first world war, perishes when a German plane, having overshot the York railway yards, dumps its bombs on him as he takes a shortcut down an alley. "Bad luck because it hadn't been aiming at Frank at all, of course."
The narrative insouciance makes calamities tragi-comic. For while the characters may be mystified by events, the narrator always knows how things happen. (She cannot fail to tell us that the German plane was shot down soon after and its crew were buried in the same cemetery as unlucky Frank.) When Jack, fiancé of the narrator's grandmother Nell, gets a safe posting during the Battle of the Somme, training dogs for special missions, you know that fate will deal some ironical card. Sure enough, having become sentimentally attached to one particular dog, he is killed when he leaves his trench to try to rescue it after it is wounded.
Some deaths are comically histrionic. Ruby's father, an incorrigible but inept womaniser, dies the death he might have wished, a coital coronary as he couples on the floor with one of the buffet waitresses at a family wedding. Ruby catches his last moments, and his last words on earth: "Oh bloody bloody Nora!" It is summer 1966 and, as she and the waitress realise that he is "not in a stupor of satisfaction", Kenneth Wolstenholme's voice echoes from the hotel television.
Deaths are constantly foretold. We are told of Ada's sad demise several chapters before it happens. When we hear about Nell's elder brother Lawrence running away to sea, the narrator cannot resist telling us that, after two decades of travel and adventure, he will be blown up by a German mine in the North Sea "just as the English coast was sighted". In the very first chapter Ruby is telling us how her sister Gillian, born after the second world war, represents to their parents "the promise of the future" when she interrupts herself with a parenthesis: "(Not much of a future as it turned out, as she gets run over by a pale blue Hillman Husky in 1959 but how are any of us to know this?)"
One hundred and fifty pages later, this death foretold actually takes place, on Christmas Eve, in a chapter beginning "Gillian's last day". Gillian is run over leaving the Christmas pantomime, at which she has taken to the stage as a singing volunteer from the audience. "Really, she is a one, our Gillian," comments one of the family party. "Not for much longer," adds the narrator, with the funny-cruel benefit of hindsight.
As Ruby recalls her sister's death, she remembers and adopts the blackly unsentimental manner of her childhood self. She and her other sister, Patricia, look at the Christmas tree and wonder silently how Gillian's presents might be reapportioned. Ruby's coolness in her manner of narrating the novel's deaths is one reason why the novel is funny rather than mournful. But this coolness also has an explanation. A family saga will always have revelations, and near the end of Atkinson's novel we find that not every death has left her protagonist unshaken. There is a secret to be revealed that is not comic at all.