Monday 22 November 2010

Notes from an Exhibition

'Notes from an Exhibition' by Patrick Gale was a much better book than the previous offering. Patrick Gale has lots of interesting observations about all sorts of things, from mental health to art to family life, this books really packs it in. I really liked the format, even though the story jumped about and I sometimes wondered for a sentence or two where we were. The chapters are each begun with a little 'note' such as you find next to a painting in an exhibition, describing the object and it's relevance, and they became the means to take you to the different part of the story he is telling.

In Rachel Kelly we have a really beautifully drawn woman, vivid and alive, and tortured by manic depression. I liked the fact that although we finally learn stuff about her early years there is no attempt to try and explain away her mental problems, they are just part of her personality, shaping her life and experiences and most importantly her art. We start the story with her death and the purpose of the exhibition is to tell her life story, to try and bring together the events that shaped her and her family. It is also very much a book about family relationships, her slightly strange and mysterious relationship with her husband Anthony, through to the more fraught and ambivalent ones with her four children, and the impact that she had on all of their lives. Although Rachel is the central character of the book she does not dominate it, in fact she is quite shadowy and secretive. Her art is an all consuming passion that is central to a life that has been very turbulent. As a young woman we discover that she resisted diagnosis and although she does for some time appear to accept the label of 'bipolar' and the treatment that accompanied it when Hedley (her second son) is clearing her possessions he finds a drawerful of medication. It seems that she had been pretending to take it but not, preferring, it appears, the emotional turmoil that came with her illness but that seemed vital to her artistic inspiration to the muted stability that the tablets provided.

The book is however about the whole family not just her: Anthony, her husband, also slightly enigmatic, rescues her by chance after a suicide attempt and his quiet presence becomes her solace and salvation, taking her back to his home in Cornwall where she discovers a world that suits her needs. Garfield is the oldest son, slightly distanced from his mother but seeking approval, who discovers on her death that Anthony is not his father and there is a slightly strange interlude where he goes off to find another 'family', but returning to find himself more secure in his real one. Hedley, second son, spent his teenage years struggling with his sexuality but is really the most emotionally secure of all the offspring. Morwenna, the only daughter, is mysteriously absent from the funeral and has obviously been gone some time. It is later in the book that we discover she is blighted by the same mental health problems as her mother and has chosen to lead an itinerant life and keep her distance from people, her family included, to spare them from feeling responsible for her wellbeing. They only know she is still alive because occasionally they hear that she has sold one of the birthday cards her mother had painted for her. As if by the quirk of fate she ends up returning home some weeks after the funeral and finally allows her family to care for her. Petroc is the baby of the family, beloved and mourned, having been killed in an accident when still a teenager. The book weaves their lives together, telling their separate stories but bringing them all back to the home and history they share.

There is also the issue of Quakerism, not something you come across in novels very often, very spiritual without being overtly religious, and used I felt as a stark contrast to the emotional turmoil of Rachel's problems, and also something that binds the family together as a shared experience. And then there is a wonderful cameo appearance by Barbara Hepworth, that just anchored the story a little more in the real world, making Rachel part of a real artists community. I enjoyed the pieces about her art and I was left wishing I could actually see some of the paintings described.

Rachel's history is deliberately mysterious and Gale gives an interesting twist to her story and leaves the reader mostly, I felt, with a message about the importance of family, that blood links are important, but that family is also what you have created with the people who share your life. The book is clever and thoughtful, the characters are beautifully created and you feel drawn into their lives. I liked this book very much and will definitely be reading something else by Patrick Gale.


  1. You mentioned this the other day and I wondered what you'd make of it... I read it last year or so and absolutely hated it! I think it was too close to home maybe (I come from a Quaker family with plenty of mental illness around) but I found it didn't ring true at all. Once I'd finished it I couldn't even bear to have it in the house! But I have friends who really enjoyed it...

  2. Hi Rachel, I confess I don't know anything about the Quakers other than them being pacifist. What I liked was simply the relationships between the members of the family and also the fact that he didn't 'romanticise' Rachel's mental illness, that it had plainly impacted greatly on her family but that it had not dramatically torn it apart or anything, they had just quietly got on with life in the face of their problems. I appreciate what you mean though, sometimes when you recognise a situation in a novel too closely it can leave you disturbed.
    thanks for your comment


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