Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate atkinsonWe’re fed by the clock so that we don’t become spoilt and demanding. The general feeling amongst the mothers is that the babies are in a conspiracy against them (if only we were). We can scream until we’re exhausted it won’t make any difference to the ceremonial feeding ritual, the time when all the little baby parcels are fed, winded, changed, laid down again and ignored. I am nearly a week old and still nameless, but at least Bunty now takes a cursory interest in me. She never speaks to me though, and her eyes avoid me, sliding over me as soon as I enter her field of vision… The nights are still the worst time, each night a dark voyage into uncertainty. I do not believe that Bunty is my real mother. My real mother is roaming in a parallel universe somewhere, ladling out mother’s milk the colour of Devon cream. She’s padding the hospital corridors searching for me, her fierce, hot, lion-breath steaming up the cold windows. My real mother is Queen of the Night, a huge galactic figure, treating the Milky Way in search of her lost infant.

This is something like a modern(ist?) version of The Red Tent. At least, that is what I often thought of when reading this book, and it has certainly taken my equally by surprise and made a similarly big impression on me. The connection is that both books are about hidden history; women’s history; the life stories that are barely recorded, except through the traditions of family gossip.

This is a life story – beginning, slightly weirdly actually, at conception – narrated by the protagonist Ruby Lennox, a child born into early 1950s Yorkshire to a reluctant mother. It is also a grand family epic – sweeping back in time to the late nineteenth century and then forward to the present. These are interwoven scenes from the past, telling the stories of the mothers and sisters, wives and daughters in Ruby’s sprawling family, sneaking occasionally into unsuspected by-ways. The “front-story” – the story of Ruby’s life, simultaneously ordinary and traumatic – is almost a side show. But not quite, because it all hangs together. The novel is about motherhood and family ties and the way that daughters are shaped by mothers, the way that lives are repeated or at least echoed through generations. It is about what happens when a woman has no choice but to get married and raise children, however miserable such a life makes her and them, and however far down the family tree that misery will reach.

You wonder whether it is possible to escape the cycle: but in the end there is, I think, hope. Wonderful, readable, funny, beautiful. Read it!

Here is an Amazon link
I got my copy at Oxfam (hooray, I can read it again!)