IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
! Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday £l4.99. "I've waited 40 years to play with my mother and now at last we spend long sunny afternoons in an endless state of make-believe on planet Alzheimer," says Ruby Lennox, and it is no ordinary character who can find delight in a parent's dementia. In fact, if you tot up the deaths and other family tragedies in this feisty first novel, it seems almost rude to find it so amusing and delightful.

From the moment she announces her own conception, thanks to her father's five pints of John Smiths Best Bitter on the eve of the Festival of Britain, it is clear that Ruby Lennox is a narrator who won't knowingly leave much out. She reports direct from the birth canal, and while toddling above the family petshop in York where centuries of ghosts cluster busily on the ancient staircase. She describes bustling parental acrimony and a child's-eye view of infidelity, plus the Queen's coronation on a new television set and her sisters' endeavours to upstage the monarch. Personally I think the pets could have loomed a bit larger, but Ruby is more taken up with the human menagerie around her.

Interwoven into the Yorkshire childhood are historical "Footnote" sections which capture Ruby's forebears, from a winsome great grandmother who ran away from her large family with an itinerant French photographer, through heroes and anti- heroes of two world wars and a succession of thoroughly fed-up women who were generally unafraid to say when they'd had enough.

Ruby uses the same matter-of-fact historical delivery of the Footnotes in the account of her little sister Gillian's death one Christmas: the family knack for unfortunate last words hit a new low as Mother yelps to her soon-to-be-deceased golden-haired daughter: "Why don't you bloody grow up, Gillian?"

Atkinson seems able to use the darkest of human mishap and bad behaviour to show how resilient and dogged people can be. When overly tranquillised Mother burns down the family house and business, Ruby thinks philosophically, and, as always, historically, "Just as the Great Fire of London helped to purge the Great Plague, so the Great Petshop Fire helped to purge the Death of Gillian." You don't keep someone like that down for long. And anyone who thinks that all the sassy new writing by women is coming from North America should check out this gem from Yorkshire.

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