Friday, 1 July 2016

behind the scenes at the museum

On Thursday 19th May I finished Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson, which took me longer than I expected and which I enjoyed less than I expected.

I had read her first two Jackson Brodie detective novels, which I enjoyed quite a lot (some reservations on the plotting, but liked the writing), and thought I should go back to the start to read the rest in order, as far as possible (which, given the opportunity, I like to do, not least because with some authors it helps to keep track of which ones I've read). And I've actually got quite a few on the shelf, having picked them up in charity shops.

I was glad I hadn't read this one first, as I wouldn't have been as taken with her, and may not have stuck with her. The start in particular I found hard to get into, and it was a couple of chapters in before I thought this is the writing I was expecting.

There were a couple of odd decisions. One was the structure, and one was the narrative voice. The chapters alternate between chapters narrated by the main character - from conception - and 'footnotes', which are chapters relating to a part of her family history from before her birth, related (in a contrivance) to something mentioned in the preceding 'I' chapter, but not in any order. The fact that the footnote chapters were not chronological, but were full of characters and relatives from different generations, made it unnecessarily hard to remember who was who and how the events related in sequence to other events and how the characters related to others in different generations; particularly in the first couple of these chapters, I was wondering how much attention I should be paying to these different characters' names and relationships because I wasn't sure if they were going to come up again, so from the start I was a little adrift. There might have been some idea of giving the reader satisfaction in making the unemphasised connections and intertwinings for themselves, but I found it gave more frustration that it was being made deliberately and unnecessarily hard to do this, with the knowledge that you were probably missing some of them, having been shaken off by all the hopping about.

There seemed to be no value in not having the chapters arranged chronologically, except possibly that  the change in authorial voice from omniscient narrator to first-person narrator might have seemed more odd (though you could just make it 'part one' and 'part two', which would be no less odd than the spurious 'footnote' structure). Non-chronological chapters can work, but it's tricky to pull off, and the reader needs both to have a clear sense at the end that it was necessary and worth it as a dramatic device rather than just a stylistic stunt, and also to have a good reading experience throughout, enhanced rather than distracted or hampered by the structure.

The first-person narrator was odd too, being uneven in tone - sometimes pretty omniscient, sometimes unconvincingly naive/ignorant, sounding no different whatever age the narrator was at, and it was the childhood (and of course pre-birth) sections that were particularly odd, mixing those things up in a way that pulled you out of the story to be thinking how is this meant to be working, or how does she know that, or how does she understand what's going on there but not there. This particularly true of one twist which contrives to be pointless, obvious to the reader but not mentioned by the much-knowing narrator. (And the twist, incidentally, wasn't the reason for the non-chronological chapter structure. There is an Iain M Banks novel in which, you work out before too long, the chapters alternately work backwards from, and forward to, the last chapter in the book, which contains a pivotal moments which changes your understanding of all the chapters you've read set after that chapter.)

If I don't take to a narrator or a narrative style, it can really make a difference to my enjoyment of a book, and that was certainly true here. And ultimately it was quite a sad story, a family saga full of pretty unhappy people. And that's not really my kind of book. I was quite disappointed really, given how much I'd enjoyed the writing style of the previous ones I'd read.

First line: I exist.
Last line: I am Ruby Lennox.

Dedication: For Eve and Helen
Thanks (next page): With thanks to my friend Fiona Robertson for all her help

The cover image is a bit odd to me; I'm not sure what it's supposed to be conveying, and I don't recognise it as alluding to a particular scene or moment in the book: a whistle hanging from a piece of string from the door handle of an open, old-fashioned door. Pale and washed-out, just one colour (plus b&w), with a pale review quote. There's quite a clever effect on the author and book title which isn't immediately obvious, and comes out best when moving the book rather than a still photo of it, in that there is a 'shadow' text which seems to be done with spot varnish on the otherwise matt cover.