Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

October 19, 2007

Patrick Gale has long been a favourite author of mine, ever since a chance encounter years ago when I was working in a Melbourne bookshop. He was looking for recommendations on gardening books, explaining that Australian natives grew well in the part of Cornwall where he lived. Before long the warmth and rapture of his description of Land’s End had me curious not only to find out more about Cornwall but to read his books as well. I’ve enjoyed his entire backlist and each new book surpasses his earlier ones in tone, form and complexity of issues. I always look forward to being reliably swept along into the heart of a family, as “real world” surroundings drop away, and the characters persist long after I’ve put the book down.

Notes from an Exhibition is the story of Rachel Kelly a brilliant artist, manic-depressive, wife and mother of four children. From the very beginning I was immersed in Rachel’s visual world, her creative impulse and the bipolar disorder that accentuates it. Significant moments in Rachel’s life depict the absorption of an artist, the moods and ideas, and inevitable distractions having a family entails. The still points are found in her art and her husband Antony, who rescued Rachel from a troubled life in Oxford and brought her to his home in Cornwall.

The central question Notes from an Exhibition asks is how best to love someone – a wife, a mother, a sibling. For Antony it was clear –

He had done the right thing in bringing her here. It was a healthier place, far away from bad associations and bad love, where she could paint again and meet other painters, like-minded souls rather than corrupt academics…Rachel would mend. She would become the person she was meant to be, unwarped by influences and needs.

Antony is a Quaker, a group renowned for their truthfulness and tolerance. It’s a faith that has no dogma, just a belief in the essential goodness of people. Meetings are held in companionable silence and The Friends, as they’re also known, form a reliable community. The quiet resilience exemplified by the Quakers provides Antony with a way of coping with Rachel’s extremes of temperament, his patience ‘the unchanging pavement under Rachel’s weather’.

The beauty of the novel is the way in which this same spirit of acceptance is extended to each of the characters – each taking a different path, as their natural propensities and individual history shapes them. Moments of clarity and insight – an artistic vision or a better understanding of the motivations of another – are the gifts of this practice.

The chapters alternate between Rachel’s perspective and those of her family, where the effects of living with someone with bipolar disorder are more clearly drawn. Here is Morwenna on her tenth birthday

She had not meant to cry. It was pointless with Rachel. It was different with Antony but tears never reached their mother. They seemed to confuse and freeze her. Laughter reached her. And affection. Had Morwenna laughed at her and hugged her she would have caught Rachel’s attention like a finger-click.

Each of the characters is portrayed with emotional veracity and glimpses of self-awareness which create a ready empathy. As in the son who takes on the role of keeping them connected

Hedley smiled on them all and made his face a mirror to give them each the version of himself that would least unsettle them. It was a trick he had learnt in boyhood: in a family of committed truth-tellers, someone had to tell a few kind lies to keep the whole thing together.

In recent interviews Patrick Gale has likened his authorial role to that of a psychotherapist, with narrative being a means to establish truth, and to my mind, create a sense of wholeness. The telling moments and secrets revealed are opportunities to get closer to the truth about Rachel. The opposing traits of creative intensity and quiet calm played out in this family, further illustrate the way people choose to live out the quest for truth.

The varied prisms of perspective all contribute to this portrait of Rachel, enhanced by exhibition notes at the beginning of each chapter. The exhibition is a retrospective where we glimpse an objective view of her life and work. The notes describe a painting or artefact from her studio and evoke images – the tools she used, the smock she wore, the colours and shapes of her paintings and the talisman objects which have significance for her children and feature in her work. This structure gives cohesion and points to the themes explored, suggesting a direction for the mind’s eye.

I was so impressed by Notes from an Exhibition, the clear prose and skilful insight making the depth of complex emotions easily grasped. True to form the family in this story has occupied my thoughts for several weeks, as have the visual images. Lastly I’m left with a deep sense of the compassion which informs the quest for truth and the whole story.

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6 Responses to “Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale”

  1. Ariel said

    I’ve read about this book before, but this review piqued my interest more than the other ones I’d read. I like the idea of looking at how someone’s bi-polar disorder affects the rest of the family, and how it feeds into her art – especially as I’m not so sure how depression can possibly stimulate creativity, despite the myth. Perhaps it’s the ups that do it, not the downs. Another one for the (looong) list of ‘to read’s.

  2. Tony said

    Been getting a lot of questions about this book at the bookstore, now I can answer them! Never thought to read Patrick Gale, but I just might after your recommendation.

  3. Ariel – yes I think you’d appreciate the family dynamics in this novel. As you say it’s more clear how the hypomanic phase of the bipolar cycle is linked to creativity, what I found interesting was the way Rachel was able to use her absorption in the artistic process to recover from the depressive episodes. Of course her family life and the understanding of her husband had a big part to play in allowing her to pursue her creative process.

    Tony – glad my review has answered those questions! If you do get a chance, this is definitely his best book and illuminating on many levels.

  4. Ariel said

    Hey Kirst, I just read this book (entirely on your recommendation) and thought of you when I finished it. Thanks for steering me towards it!

    Oh, and happy new year!

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