Tuesday 25 October 2016

A Perfect Yorker

Through the provincial lens—English magic realism at its best
Behind The Scenes At The Museum
By Kate Atkinson
Black Swan Rs 385; Pages 381
LAST year this first novel ran away with the UK Whitbread Book of the Year award. The Whitbread is only a short head behind the Booker in terms of prestige and a full length ahead in terms of cash. It's a knockout competition with category prizes for novels, first novels, poetry, children's writing and non-fiction. Behind the Scenes at the Museum not only won first novel but scooped overall winner from under the nose of The Moor's Last Sigh which everyone said would get it because it hadn't got the Booker—beaten then also by a 'provincial' (non-London), middle-aged British woman writer. This, according to her publisher, describes Kate Atkinson as much as it does Pat Barker whose Ghost Road won the Booker. Review readers will want to know if it's better than The Moor. It has won the prize and that's all we know. Was there a false start? Were the judges bribed or had they been slipped a sedative? Had The Moor—the favourite—been given too heavy a handicap with the weight of fatwas and fame stitched into its saddle? But enough of horses and gambling, more about books.

Behind the Scenes conforms to the European stereotype: Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. With the best known British prime minister (arguably) of all time spending her formative years above a grocer's shop, you might ask if this is a 'state-of-the-nation' novel. As much as any novel can be read, it is. Also, it's as much worth it's salt as any novel and much more. There is a tradition of English novels with shops at their hub or margins, even Robinson Crusoe was ready to open a shop had there been anyone to sell to, much of Dickens and Eliot and in recent times Golding's Darkness Visible and Graham Swift's Sweet-Shop Owner. It's a handy device which trades on bringing disparate folk through its doors and a hinterland of folk on the other side of the counter who have to keep the shop on the road. Atkinson uses it wonderfully well. As the result of a fire, we get two family shops—first a pet shop, then a medical and surgical suppliers—for the price of one; finally, the whole town, York, in which the novel is centred, is transformed into 'an upmarket shopping mall'.

There's plenty there for the deconstruct-ing critic as commentator on the state of the UK in a post-industrial society as a theme park projecting an image of the past and its values that never existed. For the common reader and reviewer there are plenty of jokes and pathos about goldfish and trusses, about dogs and Durex. The last item brings me to a question that Indian reviewers have repeatedly asked about The Moor and Rushdie's other work for non-Indian readers. Does a non-Indian really understand every last nuance? Or is the appeal of Rushdie for (non-Indians) partly in the exotic, the other, the unknown? In reverse, one will be intrigued to hear the reaction of Indian readers to a novel stuffed to the gills with the minutiae of a largely provincial, Yorkshire working class environment. How many Indian readers will recognise the item Durex (a brand of condom), the assumption behind the use of the term 'patio' (lower-middle class), the reference to 'conchies' (conscientious objectors or pacifists, generally pejorative) or the significance of a self-catering flat in Whitby?

Behind the Scenes offers a family-centric (is there any other?) view on a sample of the small and large accidents of Britain's 20th century history from miserable rural Yorkshire life with an enigmatic French photographer to Rowntrees chocolates, Second World War bombing missions, brown ale, Ford Anglias, the Stones vs the Beatles, emigration to Australia, fish and chips vs pasta and much more. It has some wonderful set piece comic scenes: an adulterous climax to a wedding party at the very instant that England win the soccer World Cup (1966) and a hilarious debate over royal lineage and succession (topical too) inspired by the '52 Coronation seen on the street's second black-and-white TV. It has wit and one-liners aplenty, and also scenes and moments of considerable insight and tenderness such as its pages on the onset of Alzheimer's Disease; it has one of the best descriptions I recall of approaching death from the inside and an equally compelling one of conception and birth by the novel's narrator. The narrative is driven forward in the first person who is omniscient from the first words—'I exist' to the last, 'I am Ruby Lennox'. But it is broken up and reflected by looping back into the past. It is written throughout in the present simple and the past lives in its present. It makes a worthy addition to the roll-call of English novels with Yorkshire connections that began with Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It is English magic realism. I enjoyed it immensely. I wonder what the rest of the world will make of it. Anyway, it was the best horse on the day.

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