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.

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