02 December 2011

Help. What am I missing?

Back at the end of September, I had the pleasure of reading Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. In October, I had the pleasure of seeing the three mystery novels about Jackson Brodie (the first of which was Case Histories) turned into BBC mysteries on the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery. I'm still looking forward to reading the other two Brodie mysteries. But not because of Atkinson's prize winning first book.

Because Case Histories was so good, I headed for the library with Atkinson's name on the top of my to-read list. I had several books to choose from and checked out Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

Back in '95, the book was named the Whitbread Book of the Year (now called the Costa Book of the Year). It's a respectable British prize. According to the prize's web site, "The Costa Book Awards is one of the UK's most prestigious and popular literary prizes and recognises some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland."

According to the relevant Wikipedia page, the awards "are given both for high literary merit but also for works that are enjoyable reading and whose aim is to convey the enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience. As such, they are a more populist literary prize than the Booker Prize."

Notice how I haven't said much about my reaction to the book yet?

I figure I need some instruction about this book.

I only got a bit past half way through it. And I only read that far because I recalled that at about the half-way point the elements of Case Histories began to come together and become a book and a story.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum didn't come together and gave no signs of coming together. It's a mish-mash of partial characterizations, incomplete anecdotes, and confusing descriptions of events.

And it took a long time for me to get half way through the book. I had the tendency to fall asleep after reading a few pages.

By half way through the book, I'd begun to distinguish between some of the characters, but not all of them. There was the narrator, who began telling the story at her conception. Some people in Mississippi might have appreciated the fetus' omniscience, but it was confusing, especially since after her birth, the narrator seemed not to know everything. There was the narrator's sister, Patricia, whose life would have made a more interesting story. The narrator's parents were intriguing, but not terribly interesting. And there were a bunch of other people, most of whom I could not distinguish from one another.

When I gave up on this book, I picked up Thomas Perry's Runner. By page 10, I was hooked on the story and caring about the characters. I really should have dropped the Atkinson book and picked up the Perry book long ago. I'll write something about Runner soon.

So, has anyone read this who can instruct me about why Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a prize-worthy novel? Or has anyone had an experience like my discouraging one? Write and tell me and the rest of this little bit of the world what you think.

1 comment:

Ken Wedding said...

Dan Conrad wrote:

"I just had a very similar experience just this week with the Swedish mystery writer Camilla Lackberg. I loved her Ice Princess and eagerly began the sequel, The Preacher.

"I didn't get far. In the first novel there are two main characters: Erika, a writer, and Patrik, a small town detective. They are equally involved in solving the mystery--though Erika is easily the more interesting character.

"By the next novel, Erika is married (to Patrik) and pregnant and concerned only with her domestic affairs, and her sister's, and those of others, and has nothing whtever to do with the central mystery. Not only has the more interesting character been relegated to the sidelines as dutiful wife, but about half the novel is therefore devoted to things that have nothing whatever to do with the mystery which now is strictly in the hands of the husband--who can't have his wife worrying her pretty little head about such serious things.

"On another note, I have not read Behind the Scenes at the Museum (and now won't bother, thank you) but have read Kate Atkinson's Case Histories and When Will There be Good News. I liked them both, but I thought the latter was by quite a bit the more interesting of the two and features a woman and teenaged girl I don't think I'll ever forget."

If the book is similar to the BBC version of When Will There be Good News, I'll get to that book soon. Seeing the televised versions makes me more interested in reading the books.