Notes From An Exhibition
In this, the first Patrick Gale novel I've read, sensible Quaker Anthony Middleton meets fragile artist Rachel Kelly and somewhat rescues her by taking her back to his childhood home in Cornwall. The novel begins with Rachel's death and then paints a portrait of their family life, through them and their somewhat pretentiously named children Garfield, Morwenna, Hedley and Petroc.
The novel does this in a non sequiturial sense moving not just from character to character, but shifting from past to present events. Each chapter begins with the notes presented in a posthumous exhibition alongside a piece of Rachel's work and then a snapshot of a point in her life or in the life of one of the family, building up like jigsaw pieces until a cohesive whole can be seen.
And so in one chapter we have adult Garfield in the aftermath of the revelation which follows his mothers death, then Hedley working in a cinema in his late teens, Morwenna on her ninth birthday and so on, with each child getting both an older and younger narrative focus. Though this is non linear storytelling, which doesn't always work, this is a really successful example of this kind of format.
Rachel Kelly is bipolar which both fuels and often hinders her creative genius and in many ways the novel is the story of the legacy this leaves her children, both in terms of her artistry but also the impact both genetic and otherwise of living with a mentally ill parent, the childhoods of the older children peppered with bouts of her illness. I found Rachel to be a vivid often painfully accurate portrait of this disorder which gave the real suggestion that either Gale had done his research impeccably or had experience of an individual or individuals with that disorder.
The family is also Quaker, a branch of the Christian tree about which I am not particularly well informed but in the particular case of Anthony leaves a certain kind of spiritual peace surrounding restless unpredictable Rachel, providing a steady cocoon from the depths which others in her situation fall and are shown to fall. But what is interesting is that in this book that sense of peace is at times physically palpable, an accomplished thing for any writer to achieve. There is also a tremendous sense of place in the Cornish setting.
The secrets aspect, as in the secrets kept by Rachel which become clear after her death is less well done and in certain senses feels rather incomplete, though the book as a whole is graceful, engrossing and stays in your mind, both in those times you are not reading it and after its conclusion.
The best compliment I can pay this book is that I kept itching to pick it up and continue to read it, but, sadly for me, I had finished it four hours previously!!!! For this reason, a clear signifier of a great novel : 10/10