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

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