Ruby Lennox begins narrating this novel in utero. It’s 1951 and she is the third child born to a dysfunctional family headed by Bunty and George. Ruby’s mother Bunty is third in a line of women unhappily married and dissatisfied with their station in life. Ruby’s narrative is wry and funny, whether she is talking about her siblings, the war, or even deaths in the family. Each chapter describes events in Ruby’s life, and is followed by a “footnote” (actually chapters in their own right), documenting some piece of family history. Ruby takes us back 100 years to her great-grandmother Alice, who has recently had a series of family photographs taken by an itinerant photographer. Alice dies suddenly, leaving her husband and several young children (including Ruby’s grandmother, Nell). Little by little we learn Ruby’s family history and get to know a mixed bag of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
This book is a brilliant interweaving of past and present. I loved the “herstory,” with events unfolding through a matriarchal line. I enjoyed Ruby’s cocksure narration, even when she turned out to be incredibly unreliable, because the reason for it made perfect sense (I can’t say more without spoilers). And Atkinson is very funny. My favorite scene was her description of a wedding that occurred during the legendary 1966 FIFA World Cup Final. Here the behavior of a drunken wedding guest is juxtaposed with television commentary of the match:
Everything seems to go into slow motion as Ted pitches and reels, his arms flailing like windmills, in a desperate attempt to regain his balance and avoid the irresistible, inevitable accident which we can see hanging before our eyes. The tiny bridal couple on top of the cake sway and totter as if they were sitting on top of a volcano. Some people are on the pitch — they think it’s all over– Ted moans as his feet go under him and in one dreadful slapstick movement he falls, face first, into the wedding cake. It is now! (p. 260)
Yet despite the humor, it’s clear all is not right in the Lennox family. The pieces just don’t all fit together; that is, until a significant event is revealed that sheds new light on everything that came before. The drama and emotion escalate as Ruby sorts through her family’s history and tries to heal wounds to lead a normal adult life. This was Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, and is highly recommended.