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.

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