Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale

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Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An artist with manic depression, her Quaker husband, and their four children do not have the happiest of times in this book, but the read is surprisingly interesting and highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2008
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 978-0007254668

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Oxford, the early 1960s. She is Rachel, an outgoing young artiste, making claims about the sexual proclivities of her lecturers to Antony, a naïve young Quaker. Despite everything he manages to secure a date with her, but within a fortnight of them meeting, she has tried to commit suicide. For Rachel is a manic depressive - with bipolar disorder, as the book never fails to call it.

Dutifully doing what he finds right, Antony takes Rachel to recuperate down in distant Cornwall, where he lives simply with his grandfather. Almost immediately, a lifelong relationship forms, and the first of four children are on their way.

Over the years from then to current times, and Rachel's death, the ride is never smooth. Rachel continues to be bipolar, and suffers crippling post-natal depression with it - being hospitalised after three of the births. But over time the youngsters, saddled with uncommon names one and all, can engage with their mother's illness in a comfortable way, and all find some level of succour with Antony's Quaker religion.

The way Quakerism comes across in this book might sound like a unique selling point to what seems a dour, uninteresting read about an ill woman, albeit one who has a continual artistic output, to varying critical acclaim. However, there are many selling points, which make this easily recommendable.

The events might seem a bit soapy if I were to just relate all the major narrative arcs of the book - son Hedley's homosexual burgeoning, set amongst the cinema work of the mid 1980s, the tragedies that occur to someone else, the way the errant daughter comes back from years away at possibly the best, possibly the worst time. Unhappiness spreads beyond the family of six with remarkable ease, at times. But there is no cloying soapiness to this novel at all.

Instead, the book is fragmented into something akin to connected short stories (especially towards its end), and tiny details are revisited from different angles, with a very pleasing effect of making the reader piece the puzzles together. As we're told of one minor character, (he) began not to hide his past exactly but to reveal it with tactful caution, piecemeal and only as occasion demanded.

This then becomes a mission statement, but don't think there is only dry literary study to be had from this book (although if you'd like, I'm sure you could do worse). The book reads superbly well, with something about the style I just can't put my finger on. It seems very un-purple, just straightforward, not too fussed with adding layers of meaning or metaphor but just matter-of-factly conveying its brilliant spread of plots.

There is a lot to the plot I cannot begin to convey, and the pleasure is to be had in seeing the revelation of secrets to some of the family on occasion, to none on others. There are some details that remain secret to the reader even after finishing as well, but we can forgive that, for it detracts nothing.

If Patrick Gale's Notes from an Exhibition is not mentioned when the major literary prizes are brought round, I shall be surprised, and a little disappointed. I wasn't disappointed at all by this mature, clever, artful read.

Booklists.jpg Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2008.

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