I am not very happy, but I have decided to make the best of things. I’ve been given the wrong mother and am in danger of embarking on the wrong life but I trust it will all be sorted out and I will be reunited with my real mother – the one who dropped ruby-red blood onto a snow-white handkerchief and wished for a little girl with hair the colour of a shiny jet-black raven’s wing. Meanwhile I make do with Bunty.
"I am all the daughters of my mother's house", Ruby Lennox tells us towards the end of Kate Atkinson's postmodern family saga, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995). I wrote 'says Ruby Lennox' in that sentence, initially, but 'tells us' seems a much better fit for the sort of narrator she is. Ruby is preternaturally self-aware, and not just because she riffs on Twelfth Night. In a sense, she really is all the daughters of her mother's house, and everyone else besides; she is an omniscient narrator, insouciantly and even confrontationally so, and spends the book creating not only her history, but all the people who feature in that history. She is a character who recognises her own narrative arc, and isn't terribly happy with what she sees.
Through Ruby, Atkinson plays with the conventions of time and plotting in all sorts of inventive and entertaining ways. Ruby tells tales she shouldn't know, and we have no way of knowing if any of it is 'real' outside her telling: she describes episodes from her grandmother's youth, shares with us the last thoughts of characters who died, alone, before she was born, and doesn't so much foreshadow future plot twists as baldly state them. She dares us to read lives as stories.
She even narrates her own conception, Tristram Shandy-style:
At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep - as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.
This, again, is Ruby all over. At every opportunity, she strips away the romance and punctures the illusions, drenching the most banal and discomforting details of life in sardonic black humour. She looks beneath the skin of the world she grew up in - the never-had-it-so-good 50s, the rebellious 60s - and the worlds of her parents' and grandparents' youth. What she finds, by and large, is unhappy marriages and unwilling parents: person after person who has walked blindly into the same traps as the previous generation did and realised, too late, that there's no easy way out. These may not, on the whole, be 'broken homes' - by and large, couples stay together - but that doesn't make them particularly cheerful environments to live in.
Nor do they exactly make the best of a bad job; it's not that sort of book. Ruby's father, George, spends as much time out of the house as possible, flirts relentlessly with anyone in sight, and is in hopeless, helpless lifelong love with a woman who isn't his wife. Her mother, Bunty - the book's most vivid character, the lightbulb that Ruby can't help but beat herself against - loathes the never-ending, never-appreciated struggle that is housework. "She hates cooking," Ruby tells us, "it's too much like being nice to people", and yet Bunty (caught by the perfect 50s housewife image?) reflexively disapproves of shop-bought cakes as a symptom of some unforgiveable laziness. When it comes to her children, she is hardly a well of sympathy; her "attitude to pain, or indeed, emotion of any kind, is to behave as if it sprang from a personality disorder". Sex is a chore that she must "endure", not something to enjoy (given George's technique, perhaps that's not a surprise). Above all, she too dreams of being anywhere but here:
in order to keep up appearances (an important concept for Bunty, although she’s not exactly sure who it is that she’s keeping them up for) – she paints on a shapely ruby-red smile and grins at the mirror, her lips retracted, to check for mis-hit lipstick on her teeth. Her mirrored self grins ghoulishly back, but in Bunty’s 35mm daydreams she’s transformed into a Vivien Leigh-like figure pirouetting in front of a cheval mirror.
As family sagas go, it's not exactly heartwarming material, and it could have ended up being bitter and mean-spirited, or at least roundly depressing. The soap operatic disasters that befall them all, over the years, do pile up to an extent that encourages eye-rolling, and certainly there is virtually no-one here to like. Ruby expects venality and delusion from everyone, and she is rarely disappointed; a special prize, here, for Mr Belling, Bunty's boyfriend after George's death-by-shagging-a-waitress:
At the beginning, when I was a novelty to Mr Belling ("Sweet sixteen"), he was prepared to make an effort towards me. Now he doesn't regard me as sweet at all but as an unfortunate by-product of Bunty he has to put up with. [...] Mr Belling looked at me morosely and asked, "How long until you leave home then, Ruby? Eh?"
But throughout - as even this potentially rather grim extract shows - Ruby's gossipy narration is so (cynically) funny and (cruelly) clever that I found it impossible not to get sucked in. Dreary, directionless lives shouldn't be this much fun to read about, but Atkinson has a wonderful way of making us Ruby's confidants and co-conspirators. Amid the harsher episodes of the story, plenty of light-touch character moments keep the novel from becoming a slog, like Ruby's alarmed responses to her twin cousins, during an extended stay at their house:
I have slipped into the routines of Mirthroyd Road, soon I will be transformed into one of them. Already Auntie Babs is dressing me in their cast-off clothes and trimming my hair to resemble theirs. Soon no-one will be able to tell the difference between us and they have achieved their aim of taking over the body of an earthling. If I could learn to spell, I could chalk H-E-L-P on the pavement outside the house. What do they want me for?
Or this splendid account of her eldest sister Patricia at the seaside:
It takes a couple of days for Auntie Doreen to win Patricia over. Indeed, to begin with, Patricia is downright hostile and even runs away for several hours and is eventually found down on the beach helping the donkey-man lead the donkeys up and down. The donkey-man is quite pleased with himself for acquiring an unpaid assistant, unaware that she is lulling him into a false sense of security in order to carry out her grand plan of liberating all the donkeys.
Whether in extended passages like these, or in brilliantly snarky asides ("The grown-ups, as they comically refer to themselves"), Ruby's humour both sharpens her observations and makes reading them bearable - both for us and herself. There is a clear air of 'if you didn't laugh, you'd cry'. Self-narration is her self-defence against the often painful vagaries of life ("In the end, it is my belief, words are the only things that can construct a world that makes sense"). Her wit is a coping mechanism, something to keep her going where half her family can only go stir-crazy at the gap between their dreams and reality - albeit one that sees her labelled "too clever for her own good" (Bunty), and told to be quiet:
I try and bring this subject up with Auntie Babs [...] but she just says, "Don't try to be clever, Ruby - it doesn't suit you" (I think it suits me very well, actually)
To be fair to Auntie Babs, this rebuke is in response to some serious (if unwitting) tactlessness on Ruby's part. But Ruby, I can't help but feel, would agree with Cordelia's sentiment (in Buffy) that "Tact is just not saying true stuff; I'll pass." Neither in her narration nor in 'real' life does Ruby ever learn - or care to learn - about reining herself in to save people's feelings. There is the odd faintly sympathetic comment - "Our poor mother - can't bear us out of her sight, can't bear us in it" has real poignancy, for all its impatience - but on the whole everything is laced with irony.
Ruby is in full, tactless force for even the most tragic moments of the story, playing with the emotional expectations of the audience she knows she is addressing (and raising the question of whether she, herself, has any feelings...). There's something almost sociopathic about the deadpan way she notes, early on in the book, the irony of her sister Gillian's "hope of the future":
(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?)
Unsurprisingly, Ruby is no advocate of speaking only good things about the dead, and she paints Gillian with blithe exaggeration as an obstinate, ill-tempered nuisance of a child.
It's possible such comments represent a way of defusing a grief she can't engage with. I wouldn't push this reading too far: there is a risk of blunting the acute honesty, of both Ruby and her observations, that makes the book so appealing. She is neither too clever for her own good nor the sum of her losses: she is lively, smug, infectious, outrageous, and everything she tells us is a delight to read, even when it is difficult. Still, by the end of the novel, with Gillian dead and Patricia gone, and other revelations surfacing, Ruby is "all the daughters..." in a more melancholy sense than simply the meta one, and there is space at last to acknowledge a sadness that she can only communicate to us, and not her family (a sadness in itself, of course):
Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren't we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?