The author of Whitbread Award–winner Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996) indulges in even more of the postmodern game-playing that disrupted Human Croquet (1997).
The year is 1972. Twenty-one-year-old Euphemia Stuart-Murray and her mother, Nora, are camped out at the crumbling family home on a remote Scottish island. “We must get on, we must tell our tales,” says Nora, and Effie begins with details of her adventures in graduate school just a month earlier at Dundee University. She’s living with Bob, a fellow student more interested in watching Star Trek, smoking dope, and listening to Led Zeppelin than attending classes. Effie’s not doing much better: she owes papers to all her professors and can barely muster up the energy to attend her tutorial, led by pompous Archie McCue, who spouts academic gibberish to his indifferent tutees. Interspersed with Effie’s narration are snatches from the murder mystery she’s writing for another class; from Archie’s endless experimental novel, The Expanding Prism of J; from the heavy-breathing romance his wife is penning; and from other students’ work, including a Tolkien-like fantasy and a Beckettesque nihilistic drama. All of these highlight Atkinson’s wicked wit without much advancing the plot—not that it matters, since the storyline is a slapdash affair involving various lost dogs, a ratty private eye, and lots of humor at the expense of self-important ’70s radicalism and perennial grad-student aimlessness. Nora’s story, parceled out reluctantly at Effie’s urging, concerns her daughter’s mysterious origins; the final revelations about both women’s parentage will not surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the heavy foreshadowing. Atkinson’s jokes are funny, her characters lively (if cartoonish), but her scattershot approach to storytelling wears thin long before the end.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum proved Atkinson can be playful and probing when she chooses. Fans of this talented writer can only hope that next time out she’ll concentrate more on emotional substance, less on narrative tricks.