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Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale: sensitive portrait of mental illness

St Ives, setting of Notes from An Exhibition by Patrick Gale

In Notes From An Exhibition, Patrick Gale delves into the psychologically troubled life of an acclaimed abstract painter. It’s a cleverly constructed novel that shows tremendous sensitivity to the way bipolar disorder can wreak emotional damage on the family of the afflicted individual.

When Rachel Kelly dies unexpectedly in her Cornish attic studio, she leaves a legacy of an extraordinary body of work. Her studio is a mess of part finished works and pieces never before seen, some of which could be her finest paintings yet. But she also leaves a messy personal life with a past full of secrets that her husband and four adult children begin to unravel.

The narrative is structured around key moments in Rachel’s life, told not in any kind of chronological order but jumping around in time and place. The personality of the woman who was Rachel Kelly is revealed in segments, through the viewpoints of her children and her loyal and devoted husband Anthony.

Each chapter is headed by notes from an exhibition of her work, revealing the significance of each piece but also connecting it to her personal life at the time of its creation. It’s an unusual technique but I loved the way it brought the character of Rachel to life, letting us “see” her through the paintings and items associated with her life such as her nightdress or the fishermen’s smocks she favoured while painting.

It’s a very poignant story, especially when we learn how Rachel’s erratic form of mothering has left scars on each of her children. They grow up acutely aware that Rachel bears zero resemblance to their friends’ mothers or to the idealised portrayal of mothers in tv adverts.

Sometimes if you were painting she hardly knew you were there. And when she got angry it was really frightening. She never smacked them or hit them … but she shouted and she hit things instead. It was worth it though for when she was happy. When she was happy she was better than any stupid mummy because she was like someone your age, like a sister but a sister who could put you in a car and say, ‘Let’s escape, let’s not go to school today.’

One child becomes a nervous and reserved boy. Only when he reads a letter Rachel has left for him, which tells him the truth of his paternity, can he begin to feel free. Another child, the sole daughter, inherits not only her mother’s creative talents but also her wildness and erratic behaviour. Second son Hedley grew up afraid to do anything that might disrupt his mother’s mental equilibrium. In his adult life his insecurity affects his ability to fight for his relationship when a powerful, erratic and emotionally demanding woman threatens to take his lover away from him. And then there is the youngest boy, Petroc, a sensitive child who pays the ultimate price.

This is a strongly emotional novel that really draws you into the life of Rachel and her family, witnessing their happy moments as well as their struggles and grief. More than once I felt my eyes pricking, especially at scenes involving the children’s birthdays.

Each child would get to spend their special day alone with Rachel, enjoying a treat they had chosen themselves. But not all birthdays go according to plan. Morwenna’s tenth birthday ends in tears after her mother has a quarrel with a drunken Barbara Hepworth in a small grocer’s shop. Rachel takes out her anger by rushing her daughter around the streets of St Ives, remembering at the last moment the birthday card she had painted. It was just an orange blur, Morwenna notices, as if her mother had produced it the previous night “in a resentful hurry” probably after a reminder from her father.

Notes from An Exhibition represents Rachel’s bipolarity very convincingly, showing how it affects her relationships with the children but also the impact it has on her as an artist.

Medication helps to control her moods, preventing her from suicidal thoughts, but it suppresses her creative inspiration. Her greatest work is the result of periods when she is free of the drugs, so she refuses to take them at times, using pregnancy as a reason. But she’s also become adept at subterfuge, pretending to swallow her pills each night and hiding them in a gap in the floorboards.

Mental illness isn’t an easy subject matter to portray, but Gale has done so with empathy and delicacy.

This isn’t the first book I have read by Patrick Gale. A few years ago I read A Place Called Winter but wasn’t all that enamoured by it. Notes From An Exhibition was a much stronger novel, partly because of the way it was structured but also because the characters felt more more-dimensional. I find it hard to resist novels which have an art-related theme but got double the pleasure from this book’s setting near the very artsy location of St Ives. I just wanted to get straight in my car and head there to see the beaches and explore its art galleries myself, just as Rachel and Morwenna do in the novel.

Anyone care to join me?

Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale: End Notes

Published in 2007, Notes From An Exhibition is Gale’s fifteenth novel. Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight where his father was prison governor. After university he had a succession of odd jobs; as a typist, a singing waiter, a designer’s secretary, a ghost-writer for an encyclopedia of the musical and book reviewer. He’s never had what he calls ” a grown up job”. His first two novels The Aerodynamics of Pork and Ease  were published on the same day in 1986. He now lives on a farm in the West Country. His latest novel Take Nothing With You was published in 2018. Like many of his novels, it touches on the theme of mental illness, a fact he’ll be talking about at a free online event on November 11 – see details here.

I read this book having had it recommended by several bloggers over the years. I wish I could remember who they were so I can pass on my heartfelt thanks.

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