So I haven’t yet finished Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but given that I skipped both last Friday and this Monday for my long weekend, I figure I can go ahead and talk about it. As I’ve said, Atkinson is wildly inventive and playful with her language and her storylines, and Behind the Scenes is no different. What strikes me about this book though isn’t even something she does inside it: it’s the comparisons critics consistently draw between her and the legendary British author Charles Dickens. I mean, I get it. She’s got the same willingness to span lifetimes and generations, not to mention a talent for the poignant balance between high comedy and genuine human tragedy. And she’s British. But as someone who has never been all that taken with Dickens, I think the comparison falls a bit short.
Quite frankly, I’m not a huge fan of Dickens. He tends to get obnoxiously sappy (see the happier periods of Oliver Twist’s life and the ending of Bleak House) and his female characters are painfully weak and uninteresting (he wrote after Jane Austen, so don’t you dare say he’s a product of his times, he should have known better, at least so far as women as actual characters go. Austen was sappy too). Atkinson not so much. Ruby Lennox is brilliantly entertaining and her family seems to purposefully avoid every opportunity for the sappy or sentimental. Despite that though, her characters are charming, endearing, and, unlike most of Dickens’ women, human. Even the obnoxious, spoiled kids in this novel worm their way into your heart, whether you like it or not, which is more than I can say for most any kid in a Dickens novel. Yeah I said it. I don’t care about Oliver Twist. I just don’t.
I still haven’t finished the novel and so I can’t fully comment on Atkinson’s scope with this one, but from what I can tell thus far (around 250 or so pages in), she’s aiming high here. Throwing readers back and forth between the 1950s and the years before WWI, all the way up to the novel’s present, she paints one hell of an expansive personal tapestry across the British national history. I’m also a fan of the novel’s seemingly out of place title, which from what I can gather refers to the collection of everyday objects and expressions that work their way down through the family and serve as the catalysts for the footnotes that fill in Ruby’s hefty lineage. That’s just damn clever so far as I’m concerned.
Atkinson’s doing precisely what I wanted her to do with this novel. In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed with myself for having slacked off and not read this for class when I should have. Like I probably could have skipped As I Lay Dying the second time around and read this instead. But no. I didn’t. But at least I get to do this now. So that’s cool. Oh and I just heard from one of my professor’s that her newest book, Life After Life, is similarly brilliant. Awesome. One more book I have to read. Damn it.