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Notes from an Exhibition is Patrick Gale’s latest novel and has proved to be a very popular choice with our group. It concerns the struggles of Rachel an artistic mother who has bipolar disorder – and the effect this has on her husband and four children.
At first glance, the appeal of such subject matter would appear limited but Gale has produced a psychologically astute tale that is particularly absorbing in its exposition of the relationship between manic depression and the creative personality.
The story is told via notes from a posthumous exhibition of Rachel’s work (hence the title) which head each chapter. These lead us into the narrative with alternating viewpoints from the whole family. As the pictures are not displayed chronologically, so the story flits around in time and place, like random pieces of a puzzle. Indeed the style could be a metaphor for one of Rachel’s abstract paintings but in Gale’s hands we are glided expertly towards the full picture.
We become deeply acquainted with the inner lives of his characters, especially the children, who are all indelibly marked by Rachel’s erratic mothering. Her only regular commitment to them is to spend one day a year with each of them in turn on their birthday.
These become memorable for all the wrong reasons and our readers especially enjoyed the description of Morwenna’s 10th birthday, which is ruined by an encounter with a drunken Barbara Hepworth who snubs Rachel in St. Ives. A great attraction of the book for us was the fact that it is set mostly in Cornwall and his characters move seamlessly between their invented world and the reality of what was happening in the artistic world at that time.
Rachel’s husband Antony is a Quaker, who displays immense fortitude in dealing with her illness and the extra burden it places on him as both husband and father. His philosophy enables them all to cope, providing a warmth and spirituality that transforms what could be seen as bleak material. Ultimately, we have an uplifting and immensely empathetic novel.
We next meet on Thursday 5th June, when we will discuss Pat Barker’s novel Life Class.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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