On the day after Kate Atkinson’s first novel won the Whitbread Prize, the Guardian’s headline read: ‘Rushdie makes it a losing double.’ Thus Rushdie is reminded of his disappointments, Atkinson gets no credit, and the uninformed reader assumes that this year’s Whitbread is a damp squib. But read on. ‘A 44-year-old chambermaid won one of Britain’s leading literary awards last night.’
Was this the Guardian? Was this 1996? One felt spun back in time to, say, 1956: up jumps a saucy little piece with a feather duster, whisking a notebook from under her frilly apron and pencilling a few lines of a craggy-jaw-and-warm-baritone book, her pretty brow puckered in concentration and her tongue-tip just visible. But wait. This is a 44-year-old chambermaid, so would she have a vast bosom, varicose veins, a vengeful sniffle? Yes indeed: she sounds the sort who would pen what is (according to the Times) ‘a chronicle of working-class life in York over several decades’.
Then began what the Scotsman referred to as ‘Scenes from a Maul’. The London media descended on Atkinson. A man from the Daily Express asked her to explain what Post-Modernism was; Richard Hoggart, chairman of the Whitbread judges, said that Atkinson had written a Post-Modern novel, but might not know it. (She did the whole thing absent-mindedly, perhaps, while polishing brass doorknobs.) The Daily Mail sent a woman who found the author ‘pale, rather pimply, her hair unwashed’. Atkinson’s private life was probed. She was found to be divorced, with two children, and happy with that arrangement. She was dubbed ‘anti-family’, and abused accordingly. Julian Critchley, one of the Whitbread judges, wrote an article in which he blamed the ‘Corps of Lady Novelists’ for her victory. The book, he said, ‘resembles the Life of Jackie Charlton as written by Beryl Bainbridge’. He clearly meant this as a huge insult – but to whom?
Interviewers who had not had time to look at the book went to see Atkinson with a set of expectations which she quickly shattered. Atkinson has a degree in English literature, and has done postgraduate work in the field of American contemporary fiction. The job as a chambermaid was a holiday job, and the other menial occupations cited were those which any would-be writer takes up to pay the bills – and which, in the case of young men, are thought to broaden experience and convey prole credentials. ‘She doesn’t even have a Yorkshire accent,’ wailed the woman from the Independent, who had clearly expected some kind of idiot savant. As the interview wore on, Atkinson became ‘chippy and cussed’. This is not surprising. ‘Never,’ she has written, ‘have my hair, my nails, my clothes, my marital status been of as much interest to anyone as they were to the women of the London press.’ The Sunday Times quoted Anita Brookner recently: ‘I think literature is without gender.’ Think again. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Salman Rushdie – and we know nothing of his manicure.
Now Atkinson is back in Edinburgh, where she lives. She speaks of the London press as ‘evil and morally corrupt’. From Whitbread winner to John Knox in four easy weeks. Even the friendlier Scottish papers were apt to harp on rags-to-riches, overnight success. Commentators should take this truth to heart: no novelist ever has an overnight success. Atkinson has been writing for fifteen years, and it is clear that, in one sense, her book has taken a lifetime. It is not autobiographical, but an uncanny reproduction of autobiography. It is not a chronicle. It is not about the working classes. It is not – as the interviewers assumed – slice-of-life realism. This assumption is made because the book is set in the North of England. If it were set, say, in Sri Lanka – Ondaatje’s Running in the Family comes to mind – it would not have been described as if it were the literary equivalent of suet pudding. If it were from South America, it would be evaluated quite differently. There is a double standard operating here; the exoticism of everyday life is overlooked. And the Atkinson v. Rushdie fight is not a mismatch. In its fantastic and magical conceits, its energy and tireless invention, its echoes of dream-worlds and genetic mysteries, the Whitbread winner is more like a book by Salman Rushdie than the writers of the lowering headlines could imagine. Like Rushdie’s work, it makes most English fiction look chlorotic, green-sick, an exhausted swooner fanning herself in the twilight of a tradition.
When the book was first published it received a number of favourable reviews. No one took to the rooftops, bellowing ‘Atkinson is a genius,’ but there is a good reason for this. Reviewers are paid to read books, and they often feel guilty about it – lolling before the gas-fire, as they do, sultans of syntax, while their less fortunate contemporaries are out braving the sleet and the IRA. The guilt abates when they feel that they are earning their money, and they feel this only when they are stunned by boredom, or itching with irritation. Atkinson’s book does not provoke these reactions – and so critical panic sets in. What – reached page 39, and no yellow sticky note stuck? No felt-tip scrawl saying ‘Debt to Murdoch is crippling,’ or ‘X is to Self as Self is to Amis’ or ‘vivid, charming, but lacking in force’? What, page 100 reached, and nothing done? Nothing to say, except ‘I am really enjoying myself’?
Anyone who reads, let’s say, Joanna Trollope will be able to read and enjoy Kate Atkinson. Her novel delivers to the populace its jokes and its tragedies as efficiently as Dickens once delivered his, though Atkinson has a game-plan more sophisticated than Dickens’s, and her handling of a child’s death scene forestalls any Wildean scorn. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is very unusual: a book that would have pleased the 18th century, the 19th century, and pleases our own.
The story begins with a cry of triumph from the narrator, Ruby Lennox. ‘I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight.’ Tristram Shandy, of course, the reader thinks. Both Sterne and Proust are read in the course of the novel, by Ruby’s clever older sister, Patricia. Many reviewers must have longed to write: ‘The scene is York, and a crumpet/pikelet/muffin must stand in for Proust’s madeleine.’ But Atkinson, who quite certainly knows what Post-Modernism is, has a way of diverting her reader from the easy, pre-set response. Just when you think you have begun to understand how her book works, she will undeceive you. She is not so much standing on the shoulders of giants, as darting between their legs and waving her own agenda – and talking all the time, with a voice that is absolutely her own: waspish and wry, street-smart and down-beat, sometimes brutal and sometimes (perhaps just once) tender.
Ruby’s parents are George and Berenice, who own a pet shop. They are not working-class people; they belong to the shop-keeping classes, which are different. By the date of the Queen’s coronation – Ruby is one of the first babies of the new Elizabethan Age – they own a refrigerator and a TV set. Berenice is always known as ‘Bunty’, which doesn’t seem to suit her sour character at all; in fact it is an inspiration, because we are constantly reminded of the little girl inside the grown woman, and that child is still present in our minds when her aged carapace has departed to ‘planet Alzheimer’.
Bunty does not like children. Her first reaction to the infant Ruby is ‘Looks like a piece of meat. Take it away.’ Her marriage is unhappy, fraught with so many arguments that Ruby wishes ‘that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids’. Bunty is ‘a slave to housework’, and hates cooking – it is ‘too much like being nice to people’. She steeps her husband’s underwear in a bucket of Dettol before allowing it to join the family wash. George is an uncouth philanderer, ‘scraping and grovelling’ when he is in the shop and ripping off the mask of geniality when he comes backstage. The parents’ lives are entirely a performance, of a play scripted by themselves, which might be called ‘Everything is nice and normal’. But it is not. Their shop, in a medieval building under the shadow of York Minster, has tilted walls and sloping ceilings, like a malign enclosure in a fun-fair. The shades of Roman legionnaires tread the streets, and the household ghosts cluster on the staircase, waiting to catch Ruby as she climbs up to bed: the ghosts sleep ‘curled up in the corners and stretched out along the curtain rails’. And throughout her childhood Ruby sleepwalks – always looking for something, someone, conscious of a loss she cannot articulate, of a shadowy presence, of whispers in her blood and intimations of other times, other lives.
The stories within the book embrace the lives of four generations, running from before the Great War to almost the present day; they are linked together by a system of ‘footnotes’ which direct the reader backwards and forwards in time. Often it is the mention of a household object or a small personal item like a button or a locket which sends the narrative on one of its great loops. This technique is much more ingenious and hard to manage than straightforward flashback – which Atkinson also employs – and her dexterity is considerable. When one reads the book for the first time, some identities blur, there is sometimes an aunt or an uncle too many, but only a Gradgrind will stop to make a family tree and calculate the dates. On a second, anatomist’s reading, the book’s articulation shows clearly, its bones and joints almost perfectly aligned; Atkinson cares for structure, and here is a delicate but robust skeleton on which hangs the muscle of narrative force and the tissue of loss and sadness and indecent merriment.
Atkinson is a contemporary of her heroine Ruby, but she writes about everyday life in earlier times with a precision which is eerie. Objects here have their own stories, their secret lives. Three buttons burst from the bodice of the dress of Ruby’s great-grandmother and go rolling down the generations in three separate directions. A soldier on leave sees the delicate flower pattern of the china tea-set over which Ruby’s grandmother presides; he is about to tell her of life in the trenches, but suddenly sees that there is no point. Two generations on, the family cat eats from the remaining saucer, another inarticulate witness to the tribulations the years have brought.
The nature of memory is a central issue in the book. Atkinson understands that the habit of ‘mystification’ that Laing observed in the families of his schizophrenic patients is in fact common in ‘normal’ families. There are gaps in children’s memories, because adults – sometimes from the best of motives – conspire to create them. Instinct makes things fit, gives endings to stories; any fabulous nonsense is wheeled in to fill the gaps. Years pass, and the fabrications take on the colours of sober truths. These truths then become an instrument of power, governing how life should be lived – in our family, people say, we have always done so and so. Again, the power of the half-word, or the unspoken word, governs a child’s construction of the universe it inhabits. Ivy Compton-Burnett, who needed no subject other than the power-play of family life, had a quirk or habit of writing that a character ‘barely uttered’ some significant and usually hurtful remark. Atkinson’s characters are always ‘barely uttering’, though she never uses the formulation. And when parents speak out loud and clear, who can make sense of what they say? In the space of one day, Ruby is told a) that girls should not cross their legs and b) that the Labour Party is more dangerous than the Catholic Church. No one must pass within two feet of a paraffin heater, even when it is not alight – that makes no difference. Why do Ruby’s parents shout ‘Shop!’, she wonders, when one of them walks in at the front door. Surely that is what the customers should shout? One day Ruby will realise that there is no reason, no reason at all – and that day will be the beginning of her growing up.
But growing up to be what? Her foremothers have hardly relished the traditional womanly role. Ruby develops a particular dread of a doll’s house owned by her twin cousins, weird little girls who she fears are extra-terrestrials. When she shares a bedroom with them, she is afraid that they will miniaturise her and trap her inside it, and that she will be condemned for ever to be one of the pretty ringletted girls taking a piano lesson or – even worse – the scullery maid eternally blacking the range. Atkinson contrives to explore the changing nature of women’s lives without being either obvious or schematic, and she can do this because she respects all her characters. Even those who seem to have no redeeming features are treated with wry humour; the book is never depressing. It is, in fact, outrageously funny on almost every page, and this is a wonder, when you consider what is actually happening. Of Bunty’s four daughters, two die violently and prematurely, one becomes pregnant, has her baby adopted and then leaves home for good, and the fourth makes a serious suicide attempt at the age of 16. The horrible, casual randomness of sudden death rips through the text, and Atkinson fells her people artlessly, casts them off with a phrase: ‘In 1945 George’s father died by falling under a tram on a day trip to Leeds.’ That is typical of an Atkinson character – to survive a world war, but not notice that a tram is coming. The West’s biggest disasters leave them unimpressed; a Great War soldier writes home: ‘The battle of Ypres is over now, and we are all very glad.’
Some practitioners of tragi-comedy manipulate their readers, pushing and pulling them firmly towards the viewpoint that the writer wants them to see. Atkinson’s method is more like that of Escher, where, as the artist said, ‘black and white only manifest themselves together and by means of each other.’ An Escher design contains two realities, opposed to each other but both true; the viewpoint is constant: the trick is in the mind’s eye. In his Sky and Water, birds become fishes and fishes become birds, but one cannot see both bird and fish simultaneously. In the Atkinson set-piece that one might call ‘Christmas Eve at the Pantomime’ she produces her most glittering and savage comic writing, and yet the reader knows – because we have been tipped off, in Sparkian fashion, in the book’s earliest pages – that this is the last night of sister Gillian’s life. The reader is transfixed, spitted, by laughter and horror in turn. The pork chops are charred, the pudding is tinned peaches; if only they’d known what was going to happen, Ruby remarks, they could have had Christmas dinner early, just for Gillian.
Just occasionally, there is a misfire. In one episode, Ruby’s Uncle Ted finds to his disgust that he has agreed to be married on the very Saturday afternoon, in the summer of 1966, that England are to meet Germany in the World Cup final. The ceremony is performed, the buffet is laid out, and slowly all the men at the reception drain away, as if a giant plug has been pulled and they have been swirled into the sewers. They have found a television set, of course, and when the women locate them their wrath is terrible. It is a wonderful idea, and works brilliantly until Uncle Ted falls into the cake – this physical extravagance goes just beyond what one can bring off on the page. It is a small miscalculation. A greater one is Atkinson’s decision to prolong the narrative into Ruby’s adulthood. Even this capacious book cannot contain it, and once the peak of intensity has passed, in Ruby’s 16th year, neither we nor the author have the emotional energy to see her into the calm waters of middle age. The result is that, close to the end, there is some slightly underpowered, perfunctory narration.
It hardly seems gracious to complain. The best indication of Atkinson’s talent lies in the novel’s spirited generosity. The average cautious beginner would have chipped three novels out of the material. Combining vast creative energy with a cast-iron technique, this is a book which will survive any amount of ignorant carping and boorishness, and will dazzle readers for years to come. It is almost as good, in fact, as that as yet unborn masterpiece, for which the millions will queue: the Life of Jackie Charlton, as written by Beryl Bainbridge.