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.