Notes from an Exhibition (2007)
When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies raving in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind her paintings of genius – but she leaves also a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel.
Patrick Gale’s novel is the story of a woman he has called “my most frightening mother to date”. She’s a genius, a loving wife and parent, a faithful friend but she’s also tormented by bi-polar disorder and driven by an artistic compulsion – often barely distinguishable from her mental illness – to damage all who try to love and protect her.
Notes from an Exhibition takes its title from the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter in the novel begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions. We never see examples of her work but it is described in detail and a cumulative effect of the novel is the reader’s sense that they are walking around a retrospective of her art.
Each chapter reflects in some way the object or art work that the curatorial voice describes at its outset, sometimes directly, sometimes in some enigmatic way. There’s a sense that the curator’s notes give us the official version, the art gives us another and the piece of narrative that follows yet another. The messy, human truth lies somewhere in between all three.
Roughly half of the chapters are told from Rachel’s viewpoint and these form the novel’s backbone, portraying key episodes in her life that take us to Penzance , to New York and to Toronto , from an idyllic afternoon on a Cornish beach to a nightmarish spell on a psychiatric ward. Interleaved with her story, however, are the stories of her sister, her husband and her four children, each of them giving a different perspective on this extraordinary woman, each of them seen both in youth and in adulthood.
What emerges is the intensely dramatic and complex history of one woman and her almost inhuman dedication to art but also a moving portrait of her marriage to a longsuffering Quaker English teacher and a study of the way her ambiguous gifts wreck emotional havoc within her family even after her death.
Drawing on the West Cornish settings Patrick Gale knows so well, it will please fans of his earlier Cornish novel, Rough Music, not merely in its depiction of a troubled family but in the exciting way it leads its reader to play detective with the assortment of narrative evidence laid before them.
Here he is being interviewed by Stephen Fry about the novel and reading from it. This is an extract from All Families Have Secrets, a documentary by Alex Harding screened by the BBC as part of its 2017 Gay Britannia season. © BBC.
Patrick Gale writes of the novel’s genesis: “As seems often to be the case, the starting point for this book was material that ended up playing only a small part in the finished narrative. In the wake of my father’s death a couple of years ago, I found myself spending a great deal of time visiting my widowed mother.
The usual post-mortem business of recycling vast quantities of letters and drawers of old clothes escalated when she decided to snatch the chance to move from a flat which now seemed far too big for her to a perfect but much smaller house just around the corner.
On the one hand I found I resented spending so much time away from my home but on the other I discovered that there was something horribly seductive about sliding into an elderly parent’s comfortable routine. In the name of filial duty I was putting my usual responsibilities on hold, my impatience dulled by regular, old-lady treats from M&S, nightly gin and nibbles on the dot of six, and a strange regression to a sexless but immensely peaceful second adolescence.
I began to spin a story out of the experience which ended up being the strand of the novel involving Hedley’s prolonged retreat to Penzance.
How this evolved into the longer novel and one about an artist is a mystery to me but I suspect the key lies in the happy accidents of reading. I happened to re-read Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar .
That somehow led to my discovering and devouring the poetry of Ann Sexton. Somebody, possibly my sister, saw me reading the Sexton and recommended Kay Redfield Jamison’s study Touched With Fire, which explores the intimate links between manic depression (or bipolar disorder) and the artistic drive.
These three stirred up all sorts of memories but especially ones of a sibling’s spells in psychiatric hospital when I was a child and of an intense relationship I enjoyed in the 1990s with Glasgow-born artist, Graeme Craig-Smith
Graeme had always been open with me about his bipolarity – it was one of the things that made his company so addictive and his long, long letters so extraordinary – but it made it impossible for him to commit to a relationship and would ultimately cause him to throw himself under a train. I have never had any skills with a paintbrush or pencil. Compared to my brothers and sister I had the visual equivalent of a cloth ear and quite possibly turned to music to compensate for the shame art classes brought me. So to write a novel about a painter was always going to be a challenge.
But I knew my heroine had to be a painter, not a writer or a musician, because if her skills were alien to my own I’d stand a better chance of conveying the sheer difficulty in what she achieves.
I know several artists in West Penwith and have a fair idea of how artists work. And my fiction has always been very image-driven.
However I forced myself – an excruciating process – to work through the various technical exercises in Betty Edwards’ seminal Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in the hope that this would help me start to look at things the way a painter might.
It was fascinating – and oddly comforting – to be led to see how much of my clumsiness in art stems from an over-interpretative, “talkative” brain.
In between learning to still my brain in order to see clearly and drawing things upside down in an effort to stop my mind impatiently bypassing my eyes, I hit on the idea of Quakerism as the perfect spiritual discipline for a troubled artist.
The complex personality of Rachel had already taken shape in my head, and I already knew she would end up working on the fringes of the artistic community of St Ives, when I quite by chance met an old friend’s mother after talking about my novel, Friendly Fire at the Cambridge Book Festival.
I discovered that not only had she once taught, like Rachel, in West Cornwall School for Girls, but that she had enjoyed several rather scary encounters with Dame Barbara Hepworth. I had been fretting about the degree to which Rachel should interact with the real life painters of St Ives and Newlyn and, by writing her stories down for me, this kind woman gave me the key I needed, those few intimate physical details that would let me make Hepworth a sort of ambiguous demon in Rachel’s life, both inspiration and tormentor.
Even in the 1970s the Cornish art scene was still very much a man’s club and women like Rachel and Hepworth who strove to hold their own and be taken seriously had to become a little monstrous.
(A similar quirk of fate would put me in touch with a fan of my work who just happened to have been a patient in Toronto ’s psychiatric hospital at exactly the period I needed to evoke in the novel.) It’s a great shame that so few of the old artist’s studios in West Cornwall have survived without being turned into luxury holiday homes.
A rare exception, hugely atmospheric even now that it’s a public space, is Hepworth’s which visitors can explore on a combined ticket from Tate St Ives. Her workshop, conservatory and tiny summerhouse are still much as she left them on her terrible death, the subtropical garden is surreally crammed with her sculptures and one gets a powerful sense, in the monastic, distinctly undomestic rooms in which she lived and worked, of the violence she had to do herself as a wife and mother in order to succeed as an artist…
Publisher: Tinder Press
Read an extract
Buy Notes from an Exhibition
Notes from an Exhibition is now available in the US as an eBook
Reviews of Notes from an Exhibition
Poised and pitch-perfect throughout, this is an engrossing portrait of a troubled and remarkable character. A fine writer at the top of his game.
The Mail on Sunday
A marvellous novel.
Daily Telegraph, Australia
Gale writes novels that are like beautiful patchwork quilts; they come folded and every reveal brings new detail and intrigue…
The Sunday Telegraph, Australia
Breathtakingly rich and real portrayal of a family, more powerful than any melodrama. Artists from Mozart to Cobain have proved through example that great creativity can come with great despair and torment. But while the world enjoys the fruits of their genius, their families live with the tension and fear that can both feed and destroy it. Patrick Gale’s beautiful book looks at the family of Rachel Kelly, a Canadian woman who bursts into the life of Antony, a quiet young Quaker studying at Oxford. Swept into the whirlwind that is Rachel’s life, Antony – and later their three children – can only be dragged along in her wake. Starting with Rachel’s death – of a heart attack during a particularly frenzied painting session in her Penzance studio – the novel skips back and forth in time and perspective: from her meeting her husband in 1960s Oxford to her son Garfield’s comforting yet bloodless one night stand in the wake of his mother’s death, to her daughter Morwenna’s slippery grip on reality, to the death of her son Petroc and the shockwaves it sends through the family. Gale presents a portrait of a family breathtaking in its density and richness. Like Ian McEwan, Gale deals with the ordinary – nothing is as ordinary as a death in a family – yet makes it as compelling as a tale of great adventure. Tiny increments of change and realisation become as seismic as earthquakes with a writer as talented as Gale. So when Rachel’s son Hedley somehow tracks down her sister in Canada, and when the simple yet shocking circumstances of Petroc’s death are revealed, the result is more powerful than any melodrama. Best bit: The hunger you have when you devour the pages. Worst bit: You need stamina, it’s gruelling. Verdict: Four and a half stars
The Sunday Times, Australia – Claire Sutherland
This is one of those novels you’ll always be glad you read; it’s seven hours of ones life well spent. Patrick Gale is an accomplished experienced fiction writer and a seasoned, warm-hearted human being This story of a ‘difficult’ painter and her family is of the kind from which readers can come away armed with new ideas and reassurances about their own family life. In afflicting his main character with bipolar disorder, Gale was in danger of turning this to an ‘issues’ novel but has managed to avoid it. This is partly because of the well documented link between bipolar disorder and artistic talent, something brilliantly explored here and partly because the novel has so many other strong anchors and points of focus: the Cornish landscape, the family dynamic, the creative process and, not least, the intriguing culture of the Quakers, whose ethos of service and silent contemplation habitually calms and anchors every member of his family. Gale has given this novel a framework at once imaginative and strong: the opening of each chapter is precisely what the title promises, a ‘note from an exhbition’. These suggest the exhibition work: Rachel Kelly – RS Middleton in private life – is memorialised not only by her work in this imagined exhibition but also by items of clothing and other significant objects and artefacts from her life. Each of these objects, cleverly described in ‘exhibition terms, signifies or recalls and important moment in her life and the novels chronology radiates out from that, back and forth across several decades but always circling around the central tragedy of the Middleton’s family life.
Sydney Morning Herald – Kerryn Goldsworthy
Patrick Gale’s many fans are accustomed to the appearance, every two years or so, of a new novel, each as polished and mellifluous as the last. At the same time, each book takes on a startlingly original tangent, focus and method. Friendly Fire, in 2005, saw Gale tackle adolescent homosexuality through the perspective of a 13-year-old girl. Likewise, it moved the author away from the Cornish setting that informed the behaviour of his protagonists in A Sweet Obscurity (2003) and Rough Music (2000). Notes from an Exhibition marks a return to the curious, compelling county where Gale lives. But it tells, darkly, of very different folk. Rachel Kelly is an artist of some renown, which is often all that matters to her. To her long-suffering, stoic husband and children, she is, more tangibly, a manic depressive, and a poor role model. Gale pursues the relationship between mental illness and creativity, but deftly avoids clichéd certainties. Rachel is often brusque and unwinning; her treacheries both enabled her artistic maturation and then ended it. Gale is generous towards human folly. Here, though, our capacity for comedy is only intermittent. As a species, we seem benighted – in particular, lacking wisdom concerning the vicissitudes of the human heart. One son, Hedley, feels his capacity for romantic endeavour blossom, but insanely alight on his brother. Rachel’s daughter, Morwenna, exhibits both her mother’s independent-mindedness and her father’s Quaker-born honesty. The result, though, is a persona so bereft of ambition as to be literally incredible; others “projected mysteries and secrets onto her”, with which they fell in love. “Dutiful” son Garfield appears the most well-rounded, but his relaxed acceptance of any situation may only reflect an unimaginative temperament. The most fascinating character is Antony, loyal husband and “the unchanging pavement under Rachel’s weather”. Gale persuasively individualises and scrutinises the ability to live for others – to realise oneself via another’s achievements. Gale is capable, as always, of the tart dispatch. A “fictitious” Barbara Hepworth reaches unforgettable levels of self-absorption – a reminder that not all shortcomings result in medical diagnosis. Hedley’s self-realisation as a gay man, by contrast, has nothing marginal or destructive about it. There are shades of Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honorable Defeat in his being rewarded by the ideal, adored companion, Oliver. Sexual identity matters less and less in Gale’s narratives; or rather, it proves less definitive compared to the traits that harden into our “characters”, whether we fight them or not. There’s something awesome, and awful, in Notes from an Exhibition’s account of character as destiny, lithium notwithstanding. This is heightened by an ingenious chronological disarray, as rich and inventive as we expect from this brilliant author. Its understated, tragic conclusion is as moving as anything Gale has written. Richard Canning is author of forthcoming lives of Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank
The Independent – Richard Canning
Needing a new “holiday read” whilst in Cornwall I came across Patrick Gale’s new novel Notes from an Exhibition. Reading the “blurb” on the inside cover I was immediately drawn to the book because the major influence on one of the characters was mentioned as being his “Quakerly gifts of stillness and resilience”. The book is set mainly in Penzance and follows the story of an artist, Rachel Kelly, throughout her troubled life and the dramatic effect her life and death has on her husband, Anthony and their four children. The book is seen through powerful episodes, shown from the perspective of different characters. The chapters are not in chronological order but create a picture in layers, as the main character did within her paintings. Anthony’s strong Quaker beliefs and those of Rachel and the children are a prominent presence throughout the book. Scenes include Meetings for Worship and the themes of truth and light are also explored within the context of the Quaker faith of the characters. This is a frank and unreserved work which explores in depth the effect that bi-polar disorder has directly on Rachel at different stages of her life and the impact of this on her family and friends. The novel also includes exploration of heterosexual and homosexual sexuality and relationships and explores the effects of the sudden loss of family members. I felt that Patrick Gale handled these complex issues directly but sensitively and I found the book a very engaging read that was hard to put down from the first chapter.
The Friend – Clare Barnett
Rachel Kelly is a painter with her best years behind her, living with her grown-up family in Penzance, when she wakes up one morning gripped by an inkling of fresh inspiration and with a lithium pill stuck to her forehead. She has bipolar disorder and, in order to stay sane, she has to take the lithium but, in order to paint, she has to be free of its deadening grip. The implications of this dilemma lie at the heart of this extraordinary family saga, the details of which, if they were not so carefully and sensitively charted, would make you laugh aloud with joyous incredulity. It is bipolar in itself: so intimate, yet so dramatic, so beautifully written and yet such a pot-boiler. advertisement As it says in my dictionary of quotations, happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This was never more truly said than of the Middleton family. The father, Anthony, is a schoolmaster and a Quaker, resilient enough to care for his wife – he is “the unchanging pavement under Rachel’s weather” – and their children as they’ve grown. Rachel can be a loving mother for stretches of time but then descends into long periods of suicidal depression. These are beautifully observed: “Quite suddenly, in the space of a little more than a day, whatever little gland provided hope or a sense of perspective ceased its merciful function and she woke from her afternoon nap and [the baby] was crying through the bedroom wall and softly, from the drawer where she kept the pills [the doctor] had weaned her off during pregnancy, a second malign baby was whispering to her.” After taking the pills, she sees the world in a different light; part of her struggles against their effect, for the sake of her painting, but “the other stronger part of her spoke with her mother’s voice, soothing but controlling too, tucking the thick, death-blanket about her and said, ‘No dear. Don’t try to speak. We can just sit here a while and be nice and calm.’ ” Rachel is hospitalised with post-partum depression after the birth of each of her children, and so her eldest three – Garfield, Morwenna and Hedley – all know periods when their mother is in hospital or too sorrowful to even look at them (or worse) and none grows up unaffected. Only Petroc, the youngest, who has not seen her at her worst, is protective rather than fearful of his mother. Incident is piled upon incident and revelation comes after revelation as the story is expertly layered in chapters headed with a note from an imaginary posthumous exhibition of Rachel’s work. “The Godfathers (1972)”, for example, is a description of a painting of two men, one of whom becomes Rachel’s third child’s godfather. This allows Gale to inhabit young Hedley’s voice, describing his difficulties in coming out as a homosexual and his past problems with his mother and with his current partner. In this way, Gale is able to adopt numerous points of view, and build up by increments a tightly interlocked picture of family life fraught with mystery and incident. Just as Paul Auster manages when describing films, Gale can make you burn to see a painting he has imagined and feel resentment that it doesn’t exist. If all this sounds gloomy or harrowing, it never is. Gale does not go in for emotional histrionics; he lets the reader take from the novel what he or she will. By the end, I had laughed and cried and put all his other books on my wishlist. This is dense, thought-provoking, sensitive, satisfying, humorous, humane – a real treat.
Daily Telegraph – Toby Clements
Artist Rachel Kelly’s beloved youngest son, suitably named Petroc, once gave her six stones collected from a Cornish beach, each chosen to represent a member of the family. Rachel treasures these stones and, while engaged on a groundbreaking new series of paintings possibly inspired by them, dies of a heart attack in her Cornish loft-studio. A death is a well-worn fictional opening device, but here Patrick Gale uses it cleverly to fresh effect. Told via notes from a posthumous retrospective of Rachel’s work, which head each chapter, the narrative offers an unusual way into the half-dozen changing viewpoints that dot around in time and place, like apparently random pieces of a jigsaw. Fortunately for the reader, Gale guides us fairly confidently towards the full picture. Rachel is bipolar, a creature alternately wonderful and terrible to her gentle Quaker husband Antony Middleton and her four children. As a young English postgraduate, Antony rescued her in Oxford when she was pregnant and suicidal. His devotion, his calm, tolerant religion and his childhood home in Penzance combined to make marriage to him her haven, and her abstract painting came to attract critical acclaim. Only after her death does Antony discover the hair-raising secrets of her upbringing. One of Gale’s great strengths is his detailed acquaintance with the inner lives of his characters, who leap fully formed from the page. Rachel’s erratic mothering has indelibly marked all her children. Garfield, the fearful, striving, buttoned-up eldest, feels a sense of release when he opens the letter Rachel bequeaths him, explaining the truth of his paternity. Morwenna, a drifter, has inherited her mother’s talent and her mental problems. Some of the most revelatory scenes are the birthdays – each child gets to spend their day alone with Rachel, enjoying a treat of their choosing, but often these times become memorable for the wrong reasons. Morwenna’s 10th birthday is ruined by a drunken Barbara Hepworth, who snubs Rachel in St Ives. Rachel takes out her anger on her daughter in a monstrously cruel way. Rachel’s third child, Hedley, was trained in boyhood never to upset his mother’s delicate equilibrium. As a man, he feels powerless to challenge Ankie, the woman annexing his lover Oliver, because, like Rachel, Ankie is “powerful, dismissive, erratic, a threatening, clamorous, emotionally hungry presence”. Rachel’s bipolarity is convincingly drawn and this includes the upside of her condition – the novel offers interesting insights into the mystery of creative inspiration. She knows that when she is free of medication, soaring towards a high, she produces her greatest work, and so she often refuses to take it, pregnancy being one useful excuse. Do we applaud her for bravery or blame her? The lows, when she is suicidal, are the punishment, not least for her family. One would like to know more about Antony, especially whether he was fulfilled by his marriage to a woman he has to mother and who always claims everyone’s attention. He is the still, solid, positive presence, his Quaker philosophy and way of living supplying a warmth and spirituality that transforms sometimes depressing material. This is an uplifting, immensely empathetic novel, and Gale’s prose, as ever, is as clear and bright as the Cornish light.
The Guardian – Rachel Hore
Patrick Gale’s novel comes with a sticker informing us that it is printed on “100% recycled paper”. The hostile reviewer rubs his hands with glee as he frames sallies about rehashed plot lines and hand-me-down characters. But Notes from an Exhibition doesn’t lend itself to this treatment. While it lies within an established tradition of domestic, familial fiction, it has the kind of quietly radiant intelligence, craft and integrity that bypasses superficial questions of originality. As well as being a novel of the complex dynamics and dysfunctions of family, it is also places the artistic temperament under a microscope. Rachel Kelly is a volatile abstract painter, a manic-depressive, who lives with her calm Quaker husband Anthony in Penzance in Cornwall. The book opens with her death, and then proceeds to weave (with considerable artistry) backwards and forwards in time, bringing the grown-up children together for the funeral and, at the same time, exploring those secrets and unresolved familial conflicts that come to the fore at such times of crisis. Gale is attuned to the mysterious truth of family life – that it is both random (we never choose our family) and fundamental to who we are. Rachel’s children are Garfield (not Anthony’s son, and thus forever feeling himself an outsider, pressing his nose to the glass), Hedley (gay, and inheriting his mother’s artistic interest, although not her drive and darkness), Morwenna (who, conversely, inherits her mother’s madness but never finds equivalents for the two great stabilising, saving forces in her life – art and Anthony) and Petroc, the son who remains opaque and unformed in the others’ memories because he is killed while still unformed, a teenager. With warmth of understanding and lightness of touch Gale portrays their intertwined variety (“Hedley had always found his emotions easy to access, a shallow current safely dipped into then shaken off . . . Garfield’s feelings, by contrast, were a deep, forbidding pool, dark and unfathomable, stirred by sudden currents he could not control”) and unfolds the resentments and jealousies that bind them together and to their wayward mother. He is especially good at conveying the openness and particularity of a child’s consciousness – there is a wonderful scene where, from the point of view of a young Morwenna, we see Rachel meet another eccentric matriarch of the Cornish artistic scene, Barbara Hepworth, in a supermarket. And the central character of Rachel allows him explore, without falling into dry analysis, the relationship of mental illness to creativity. Add to that a deeply rooted sense of place (not the picture-postcard Cornwall, but the off-season one, where bohemianism and bored teenagers rub shoulders with rural poverty) and you have a recipe for a novel with a variety and freshness that is all the more powerful and surprising for being discovered in such a circumscribed and very English a milieu.
The Sunday Times – Adam Lively
By the time troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies of a heart attack, her glory days are behind her. She leaves an adoring husband, two grown-up sons and a disturbed daughter. She also bequeaths a dark mystery concerning her past. What follows is a beautifully written, slowly unravelling tale of changing family dynamics, the curse of bipolar disorder and the balm of Quakerism. Husband Anthony first encountered enigmatic, skittish Rachel as a student at Oxford and, following her near miscarriage and mental breakdown, offered her refuge in his Cornish home. The family they have is rocked by manic depression and bent to Rachel’s obsession with her art, but it is also firmly anchored by their faith. After her death, Anthony traces Rachel’s early life to Toronto and contact with her sister brings astonishing revelations about her turbulent early years. Patrick Gale’s serene and carefully crafted prose conveys a profound understanding of the workings of human relationships and the torment that mental illness causes its sufferers and also those around them.
Daily Mail – Ross Gilfillan
I’ve never been a Gale fan; his writing style is excellent but the subject matter has never engaged me. The synopsis of Notes From an Exhibition left me expecting much of the same, but I was pleasantly surprised… Gale deals with this anxious family with humour and humility and the eccentric characters are sympathetically and truthfully drawn. The overriding theme is the powerful bond that family relationships create, and an unexpected, all-enduring love.
Gay Times – Rob Dawson
If Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition is not mentioned when the major literary prizes are brought round, I shall be surprised, and a little disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed at all by this mature, clever, artful read.
TheBookbag.co.uk – John Lloyd
Unhappy families have been a staple of novels since long before Tolstoy wrote the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina. His words recur at the beginning of John Lanchester’s wonderful Family Romance, a memoir that is often stranger than fiction, and they also spring to mind on reading the latest novel by Lanchester’s Oxford contemporary Patrick Gale, whose romance involves the same familiar mixture of love and deceit. Gale’s 14th novel, Notes from an Exhibition, boasts several recognisable themes from what is already an impressive body of work: the Cornish setting, for example, the intermingling of gay and heterosexual desire; separation and death. The mood is retrospective, like the title, which refers to the short chapter headings in the form of extracts from a catalogue of paintings by Gale’s heroine, a mentally unstable artist on the fringe of the St Ives set. The opening scene describes the middle-aged Rachel getting ready for an exhibition at a small gallery in Newlyn and speculating in the bathroom mirror about the likely attendance of her children. The action of the second chapter takes place almost half a century earlier, in Oxford, where Rachel meets her future husband Tony following an unrequited love affair with a married lecturer that has left her pregnant and suicidal. She is dead before the start of the next chapter, though Gale uses the funeral and its aftermath to tell the intervening story, which is relayed from the perspective of the other family members. The posthumous structure of the narrative owes something to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as does the matriarch at its centre, but Gale is a very different sort of writer and one hardly inclined to experiment with form. Indeed, the real pleasure of a Patrick Gale novel often lies in the old-fashioned quality of its flawless plotting. Here he tackles the vexed question of a mutual suspicion, as well as love, that exists between parents and children. Rachel’s eldest son, Garfield, and his wife, Lizzy, remain childless until the end of the novel because of an unconscious fear that their offspring might inherit the grandmother’s bipolar disorder. His sister Morwenna vanishes without trace in a state of mental breakdown that echoes Rachel’s own alienation at the same age from a respectable upbringing in Canada. The unexplained death of her youngest son, Petroc, casts a shadow over the novel until the final scene, when it is explained in the context of his brother Hedley’s coming out. Gale has written skilfully in the past about the delights and torments of adolescence. Many of the relationships in Notes from an Exhibition, too, oscillate between innocence and experience. Underlying the ingenious narrative is a somewhat conventional moral world, in which people fall out with their relatives but are ultimately redeemed by love or by having children or by rediscovering lost family connection. Other aspects of the novel come as a surprise, however. The Cornish family into which Rachel marries belongs to the Society of Friends and the rituals of Quaker truthfulness, the idea of candour and of bearing witness, take on a metaphorical force at times. The insularity of Cornwall, somehow cut off from modern life, is another recurring motif. Everything drifts towards Land’s End, where the author lives. “Being virtually an island, the west of Cornwall seemed to contain nothing but Cornish culture,” he writes, “Cornish people, Cornish names and numbers when you were there but they were so deeply diluted as you moved away to even halfway up the county that coming across the 01736 code or someone called Penberthy in Brussels or even London caught [Morwenna’s] attention like a waving flag.” The same intensity defines Gale’s writing. His sense of place is utterly coherent and he makes the background easy to navigate, thanks in part to wonderful names of towns and villages such as Marazion and St Just. His description of life in a mental asylum is just as vivid – and another example of being cut off. But just like the stroppy version of Barbara Hepworth who makes a brief appearance at a fundraising gala, the novelist’s England is held deliberately at arm’s length from the real thing. Few readers will complain. Some of the events are melodramatic, almost hackneyed, but the writing itself is so unpretentious, and Gale brings such patience and generosity to the story, that one cannot help but respond to his uplifting faith in human nature.
New Statesman – Hugh Barnes
Notes from an Exhibition is a story about family life and the tensions that at once bind it and tear it apart. Patrick Gale’s focus is sharp and this small group of characters is carefully observed and lovingly brought to vivid life…Each chapter of the book begins with an epigraph taken from the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of Rachel’s life and work. These passages then spark a chapter which relates to the painting or the object described. Those moments described are non-sequential, making the book a kaleidoscope of pictures, sometimes comic, sometimes unutterably moving. Ultimately, Notes from an Exhibition is a rewarding read.
Daily Express – Peter Burton
This is a book full of insight, intelligence and quiet humour familiar from his previous masterpiece, Rough Music.
Image Magazine, Ireland