Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More Atkinson

I recently reread Kate Atkinsons' Behind the Scenes at the Museum, some 13 or so years after I read it with a book club. This time, I was motivated by my friend Tanis who moved to it from Atkinson's wonderful mystery series featuring Jackson Brodie. We thought some tandem reading might be fun, and we even hoped we'd fit our discussion of the book into T's recent visit to the Coast. Alas, other topics plus food plus wine plus martinis plus dancing to Abba distracted us from our goal. We made up for it last week, though, with a 90-minute phone call covering the Atkinson and Dionne Brand's Ossuaries. I'd rather forgotten how satisfying a phone conversation could be, that medium having been replaced in my life, for the most part, by e-mails, FB chats, and the occasional in-person book chats. When's the last time you talked to a friend about a book over the phone? A sustained conversation?

What did we talk about? Well, we shared our delight in Atkinson's literary references -- beginning with the allusion to Tristram Shandy (the child sharing details of his/her conception) and the accompanying sly description of her father as being made "of stern stuff" (a test? will the reader get the Laurence Sterne nod?). The narrator's wry depiction of her parents' coital interactions takes on ontological weight with her evocation of Sartre as she speaks of "mov[ing] from nothingness into being." Given that the alert reader picks up these clues from a conversational tone filled with a comically detached yet observant tone, all on the first page, we know we're in for a page-turning fun ride.

Yet there is foreboding almost from the opening as well as Ruby wonders, in her adult-filtered childhood voice, why she has a "strange feeling [as if she's] being haunted by [her] own embryonic ghost?" And truly, the novel achieves a wondrous alternation of comic and haunted. As in the novels Nicola King reads in her brilliant study of how the self remembers and is remembered, Memory, Narrative, and Identity, narrator Ruby unrolls layers of family history to expose a traumatic secret. But Ruby doesn't know all, and one of the novel's pleasures are the footnotes that follow each chapter, the parallel narratives that let the reader in on secrets that Ruby and her immediate family are not privy to, but that inform their past.

Once again, I will back away from any attempt at a full book review, pleading the usual time constraints, but I will add three references before I close. First, another literary allusion, one that delights me as a knitter always on the alert for knitting imagery in literature. Ruby describes her mother Bunty "sit[ting] behind the counter clicking her number nine needles as if she's a tricoteuse at George's guillotine when she should be knitting my future" (17) -- a clear reference, surely, to Madame Desforges in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.

The second, a hilarious indication of just how unsuitable Bunty is as a mother: "She hates cooking, it's too much like being nice to people" (24)

And then this lovely quotation, which really summarizes much of the novel's commentary: Ruby asking, after a series of devastating hits, "How can life be so sweet and so sad all at the same time? How?" (281).

How, indeed?
If you've read this one, I'd love to hear what you think. If not, I'm obviously highly recommend that you add it to your list.


  1. Well, you know what a huge Atkinson fan I am. I remember reading Behind the Scenes and thinking 'I wish I could write like that'. Bunty is a fabulously awful mother. And I love the quotes you pulled out! The knitting one reminds me that my French teacher used to call me Madame Desforges because I used to knit in class (in retrospect, an extremely funny form of rebellion).

  2. And I have to ask, are you an Angela Carter fan?

  3. Tiffany, Madame Desforges is a terrifying figure -- perhaps your knitting intimidated your teacher, more effective rebellion than you could have hoped for ;-)
    And no, haven't ever succumbed to Carter. Should I?

  4. Oh yes, do try Carter! Although her stories are quiet baroque, her writing is quite pared back. The first time I read Atkinson I thought she had a little of the same sensibility. Having said that, I haven't read Carter for 10 years, so maybe I will re-read and see what I think now!

  5. Tiffany: as if I need more on my TBR list! But I'll keep Carter in mind and if/when I read her, I'll think in terms of Atkinson.

  6. More Atkinson, and more phone calls! We have to talk about Huston's Fault Lines.

  7. Tanis, Paul just read the Huston -- chatting with him about it, I realized I may have pushed some parts of it back to the darker recesses as protection, but some scenes are still way too clear.