This novel was given high praise from Stephen Fry on the front cover, so I gave it the benefit of doubt and bought a copy. I was disappointed.
We meet manic-depressive artist Rachel at various stages of her life; as a precocious student, a promiscuous teen and an unloving mother; but never as a likeable character. Her lack of maternal feeling makes it difficult for the reader to have compassion for the tortured artist, who seems nothing more than a vessel for her mental disorder.
The novel is written from several points of view, with each character introduced in a new chapter, and some very late. Perhaps the most anticipated is the elusive Morwenna, Rachel's daughter, who is engaging as a child but turns out to be wholly predictable when she reappears. Though the characters are well-developed, many are one-dimensional, and Rachel's four children lack substance as adults. However, the book's main strength is its fascinating insight into each child's reaction to Rachel's illness. The evocations of the certainties and claustrophobia of childhood provide rare moments of sincerity. The chapter where son Garfield (hint - try to read without picturing a large ginger cat) visits his mother in a psychiatric hospital on his birthday is especially heartbreaking.
Patrick Gale specialises in writing empathetic novels in which each character springs from the page fully formed and individually believable. In addition, somewhat in the style of Jodi Picoult, he likes to explore a particular human problem or tragedy and to explore the effects it has on close family and friends.' Notes From an Exhibition' does not disappoint on any of these counts; beautifully constructed and cleverly allowing the reader feel that they have had an intimate brush with fame, this chronologically chaotic novel explores the world of contemporary art, the experience of bi-polar illness, the support that the Quaker religion brings to everyday life, and of course the wildness and beauty of the Cornish landscape that characterises most of Gale's work.
After a long period of artistic inactivity, artist Rachel Kelly suddenly wakes up with inspiration. Retreating to her attic, she embarks on a frenzied bout of creativity, painting huge, stunning canvases and in the process sinking back into the bipolar illness that has plagued her all of her life. When the banging and shouting that accompany her painting finally dies down, her devoted husband Antony creeps up to the attic and forces the door, only to find her lying dead amongst her paints.
This is the beginning of a novel that is more of a portrait of an artist than a family saga, and which spans decades to tell the tale of a talented Canadian teenager who battles mental illness to become one of the most respected abstract artists of her time. Each chapter of the book is based on items in a retrospective exhibition of Rachel's work, and centred around either a painting or an article of clothing. The small description of each exhibit that starts every chapter is a clever way of providing the reader with background material, and the story that is attached to each exhibit is told in vignette form, devoted to either a particular individual or an episode in Rachel's life.
Rachel's family at times seem to take second place to her passion for painting. Her devoted husband Antony and her four children; Hedley, Petroc, Morwenna and Garfield all have to arrange their lives around a passionate maelstrom of love, hate and creativity. As they grow up in Penzance, each of them are indelibly affected by Rachel's bipolar disorder; surviving her erratic mothering to a more or less successful degree. Jumping backwards and forwards through time as the book progresses through the exhibits, the reader witnesses their unconventional childhoods and the uncertainty that they have to endure, and views them as adults to discover the ways in which their upbringing both inspired and damaged them.
Antony is the rock of the family and the most fascinating character in the book, as he finds his strength in the Quaker religion that he has been born into. This strength is very necessary as he takes on the commitment of living with the beautiful, talented, suicidal and fascinating Rachel. The story is just as much about Antony and his ability to bear almost any degree of pain, as it is about Rachel and the way she balances her art with her mental illness and the needs of her young family. The silence of the Quaker meeting and the tranquillity and comfort that it brings is described very movingly and is a tribute to Gale's exacting research.
In an addition to the Cornish background, Gale inserts a local celebrity into the plot in the shape of Barbara Hepworth. The cameo is memorable and realistic, with Hepworth's nicotine stained cheeks, her acerbic character and her eccentric parties creating a strangely earthy picture of the famous sculptress. This too was painstakingly researched by Gale, who even spent time listening to recordings of her voice before he added her to the storyline.
Patrick Gale is well known for creating each character completely in isolation before linking them together through a complex plot and stylish prose, and it is this technique which makes each of them so addictively believable. This book is one of the best in his repertoire; each character is very real and deep, but still linked seamlessly and integrated into the storyline. As ever, there is a twist at the end that very few would guess, but in many ways this is unnecessary as the reader feels irresistibly drawn into the family life and history of Rachel and her family without the artifice of mystery. This is not a novel which is packed with action, but at the same time it is almost impossible to put down; a tribute to Gale's skill as a writer as well as his ability to make each character feel like a best friend.
'Notes from an Exhibition' was published in 2007 by Fourth Estate.
It has 374 pages, and as an added bonus, contains a walking guide to Penzance, written by Gale as part of his attempt to get the book accepted as Richard and Judy's book of the month. The walking guide includes photos, and takes the reader around many of the places found in all of Gales novels. Following the walking guide brings the beauty of Penzance to life as it follows a winding trail in and out of parks and past many of the locations mentioned in past novels.
Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale
A bit about the author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight and spent his childhood at Wandsworth prison where his father was governor of the prison. He then grew up in Winchester and went to Oxford university. He has a deep love for Cornwall and after the sales of his first novel bought himself a farm in Cornwall near Land's End. He has had a number of interesting jobs ranging from a singing waiter, a typist and an encyclopaedia ghost writer before embarking upon his career as a novelist. He has written a number of novels which I am now going to look out for as I really enjoyed this one which I was lucky enough to pick from a Book Crossing shelf n Derby and left in Johannesburg at our hotel where we stayed the night.. One of these is called "Rough Music", another "A sweet Obscurity", "The Facts of Life" and "Friendly Fire" are all mentioned in the back of the book but there are about ten books I believe.
Patrick Gale decided to write this novel about a family but it was also influenced by his relationship with a bipolar or manic depressive artist that he had a relationship with and who sadly committed suicide, the death of his brother in a car accident and the fact that he had spent time supporting his mother after the death of his father. After those cheery influences you might expect a really gloomy novel but despite these influences I found the novel very readable and at times amusing, always sensitive and a very interesting insight to how a family might deal with a bipolar mother/wife.
The heroine of the novel we quickly discover has committed suicide and we learn about her life through notes on paintings in a posthumous exhibition. After each painting note we are taken a little deeper into Rachel Kelly's life and also learn about her family of children and later about her own family, mother father and sister.
Rachel's husband Anthony is a Quaker so we also learn a bit about the Quaker religion and how it affects the lives of the members and their families. Anthony is the stable rock in the family and looks after Rachel and of course their four children. Rachel has wonderful high periods and then deep lows often after the birth of their four children. In the highs and extreme lows some of her best work is produced but when she is on the sort of medication that keeps her on the middle ground then she feels stifled artistically so she begins hide her medication from Anthony and this is what leads to a great surge in her desire to paint but unfortunately also leads to her suicide. This is not really a spoiler as we hear about her death at the start of the story and then look backwards filling in details the story develops.
The children also all seem to have their various problems. Her daughter Morwenna disappears and becomes a bit of a drop out and no-one hears from her for years until she strangely turns up again after her mother's death despite the fact she was blissfully unaware of this fact. Garfield, the oldest son is the off spring of a pre marital union and has many hang ups and spends his life trying to get his mother's approval but does have a lovely wife who does not get on with Rachel at all. The youngest son Petroc has a lot of problems and is the one who is sadly killed while Rachel is still alive and the family grieve in their different ways from the tragedy. Hedley is the gay son who seems to hold the family together after the death of his mother despite the fact that his own relationship appears to be going through a very rocky period. I found it interest8ng that one of the strongest characters in the novel was gay and so was the author. It was as though he was trying to give homosexuality a quiet and supportive strength of character. It is Hedley, who stays and sorts out his mother's things and stays with his father after her death and also welcomes Morwenna, the wayward sister back into the fold too when she returns.
I really enjoyed the style of Patrick Gale's writing as it was very sensitive and observant but at the same time I was constantly engaged and wanting to earn more about this family. Each character was sensitively portrayed whilst at the same time their problems and their flaws were not glossed over in any way. The author spent some time researching the various illnesses and problems and also drew on his own relationships and experiences and it was quite obvious to me when reading it that this novel is a response to experiences suffered by the author rather than simple just reading up and finding out about the problems and illnesses suffered by characters in the story.
I found that Gale wrote in a sensitive but not over sentimental or mawkish way. His characters had flaws but they were real people who had feelings and problems that most people could relate to in some way. Nobody was perfect but still we could empathise with them. We might not like or approve or the way they chose to live their lives but we could understand to an extent how they got to make the decisions that they made. The heroine of the novel was not really one you could feel a great deal of sympathy with as she caused her family co9nsiderable pain, but as she was not well we must really feel some understanding. It was her family I felt so sorry for. However it so often seems to be the case that someone with a great talent for art or writing does suffer from some awful depression or other mental problem and this seems to feed their artistic talent. It is sad that in order for the world to receive such talent that some poor person has to go through this huge torment in their lives.
It was certainly an insight into the mind of someone who suffers from a bipolar personality and how this might affect the family and also how the person him/herself also suffers. It is a shame that such talented people in the world of creative arts such as music and painting are so often these tortured souls who have to suffer in order for the world to be able to enjoy their work. You only have to think of Van Gogh and Beethoven as two obvious examples and there are so many more, I think it is very sad really.
I know that this description may not sound like a very happy read but it is surprisingly easy to read and it flows very nicely through Rachel's life as we 'view' the different paintings in her posthumous exhibition. There were some amusing sections, some very sad parts and some that most of us could relate too in family life. I found it a sensitive but realistic and very well written story and would thoroughly recommend giving it a read even though I probably would not have bought it if I had seen it in a shop I often find books from Book Crossing introduce me to books I probably would not normally have chosen but I really enjoy reading and this is one of those little gems.
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I'd never read a Patrick Gale novel before but noticed this one in the library and was sure I'd read something good about it somewhere so thought it might be worth a read. The novel centres on the life of Rachel Kelly, a famous artist who has suffered from bipolar disorder (manic depression) all her life. Living with her has been an emotional rollercoaster for her Quaker husband Antony and their four children, as Rachel bounds from flighty and manic creative highs to crippling and devastating lows. However when she is found dead in her studio, her family discover some fantastic paintings that have never been seen before. This makes them think about how little they really knew about Rachel, and they begin to crave answers about her life. All they really know about her past is her date of birth and that she came from Canada. But they want to know more. And at the same time they try to come to terms with the effect that Rachel's devastating illness has had on each of their lives.
The "notes from an exhibition" that the title refers to, are literal. Each chapter begins with a note regarding one of Rachel's paintings - similar to notes you would see in am exhibition or museum - containing the name of the piece, the medium, when it was painted, who now owns it, and some notes on the piece. Many of them were painted while Rachel was in hospital so the notes alone give us an interesting insight to Rachel's life and illness. The whole book is written in third person, from varying points of view, but always with Rachel as a key element, and in a sense is plotless. It's almost like each chapter is a "note" about Rachel's life, and when pieced together give us a wonderful portrait of a troubled but very talented individual.
This is a very multi-layered book as we look at Rachel's life through not only her eyes but those of her husband Antony and her four children - Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc. Although there are a lot of points of view in this book, each is given equal attention and all characters are well rounded and realistic. The chapters are set at various periods of Rachel's life so flit backwards and forwards in time, but the narrative is engaging and easy to follow. Rachel's illness affects each of them in different ways. Bipolar is a very selfish illness - not the sufferers themselves, but the illness as a whole - and it is heartbreaking to read about her young children competing with her depression to try and win her attention. Antony is a devout Quaker so the children are brought up in this religion. In a sense this makes the childrens' lives bipolar as they have the peace and calm of their Quaker father on the one side and the wild instability of their mother on the other.
As I said, this book doesn't have a plot as such, it's more a piecing together of a life. In a sense the book is written backwards, with the ending (Rachel's death) at the start, then followed by everything that came before. The real ending of the book is somewhat open, but the reader knows what is going to happen, having already read the history of the character in question. I liked the way he ended it as it meant the book ended on a bittersweet, rather than devastating, note. Gale manages to write convincingly from so many different points of view and his descriptions of wind battered, wild watered Cornwall are on a parallel with Rachel's volatile character. The reader gets a real sense of the duality that exists within Rachel as she struggles to deal with being a mother and being an artist almost in the same way that she struggles between the highs and lows of her illness.
The edition I read also has a section of notes by the author at the back, explaining how he researched the story and where he got his inspiration from, which I found really interesting and insightful.
Overall I loved this book. It's full of the harsh reality of mental illness and how it affects not just the sufferer but everyone around them. At the same time it is a story about the compassion and love that can exist within a family, as well as the secrets that divide it. It covers dark subject matter but isn't too heavy a read as it is written in a light, realistic way but at the same time will make you think hard about yourself and the affect you have on everyone around you, as well as the affects they may be having on you. A great read, highly recommended.
I used to be stuck on the same authors and never read a book by someone I didnt know. However it was the begining of my holiday I was in the airport and I saw this book so I bought it and I'm so glad I did.
The book is about the life of a woman with bipolar and how her family coped. Within the first chapter she commits suicide, the story is tells of a grieving family unfolding the mysteries of there mothers life.
Its an incredibly moving story, although it concentrates on Rachel Kelly and her life with bipolar it has so many side stories about her children and how Rachels disease affected there lives.
It was a dificult and sensitive subject to tackle, but Patrick Gale did it so well. I felt I really empathise with all the characters, the marriage that is forged between Rachel and her husband began in a peculiar way and each page intrigued me, I kept wanting to know more about there past.
At the beginning several characters where introduce and I foudn it a bit difficult to grasp who was who at first. However, it soon got going and I wasnt able to put the book down. What really made it was the setting. It was set in cornwall and personally I love Cornwall and Patrick Gale really captures the beauty of the cornish coast and countryside. This truly was an outstanding book.
I have read several books by Patrick Gale and enjoyed them all. This is his most profile one to date as it was chosen as a "Richard and Judy" recommended read.
It tells the story of Rachel Kelly, a successful artist who is bipolar and her family, including her husband Anthony and her grownup children. It does not give too much away to say that it starts with her death and then tells her life story and the impact she has had on her children's lives by selecting key points in their lives. It also describes their varying reactions to her death with the backdrops of their own current situations.
Each section begins with the titular "Notes From An Exhibition" analysing a particular painting from various points in her career against elements in her personal life. It then leads into a focus of one of the members of her family. The characters of her children and their varying fortunes and life paths are particularly well described. A particular bugbear of mine in most fiction that centres around families is that the relationships and characters of siblings are just not convincing as their back histories are just not well sketched enough. With this book I felt that the explanations were satisfactory without being indulgent.
I am so excited to see how Patrick Gale will follow this up.
To try to describe the plot of Patrick Gale's novel "Notes on an Exhibition" is as difficult a task as to try to explain what a piece of abstract art is about. In fact, this novel is less of a story than it is a portrait of a personality and the life around her. The action of this book revolves around Rachel Kelly, an artist who came from Canada and lived most of her life in Cornwall. What's more, Rachel is bipolar (manic-depressive), and this effects not only her own outlook on life, but also all those around her as well as her art. To tell you more than this, would be counter-productive, since nothing is truly obvious from the outset of this book, and you only get the full story once you've finished reading the last page.
Gale has set up this book in a fascinating way. To begin with, the chapters throughout the book are prefaced with the types of background notes you would find on artworks at an exhibition - in this case, they are from the posthumous exhibition of Kelly's work. This is, of course, where the title of the novel comes from. These notes are essentially tiny insights into Kelly's artistic world, and yet still leave so much unsaid. The chapters themselves are written in vignette style, with each of the different characters having chapters to themselves. This means that while Rachel is still the central person here - since it is her life and work that is the thread of continuity throughout all these stories - we also get to see everyone else in her life on their own. What makes this so fascinating is that we don't get bogged down with long descriptive passages of Rachel's past, or anyone else's. Instead, we get to see pieces of her life, through both her eyes and through those of the people that lived with her. Moreover, it is interesting to see what parts of their lives each of the characters focus on, as their own personalities and problems colour what they tell us about.
All this is done in third person which might have made the dialogue seem less realistic. But Gale's true craft comes through in this by proving he knows his characters so well that each and every one of them have their own voices. Although there were a few times when I wasn't totally sure whose story we were looking into as a chapter began, but this fell away very quickly within a paragraph or two. You also might think that this book is built linearly, but in fact, there are - in many places - huge jumps in time from one chapter to another. Again, this might sound disconcerting, but Gale's prose is so carefully chosen that it actually feels very natural. There was one review I read that likened this book to a kaleidoscope, with different colours and shapes weaving into different patterns to form a whole. This is probably a very good analogy for this book, although I'd say it was more like really going to an art exhibition. Each painting (or, in this case chapter) tells its own story and gives insights into the artist. Then, when we've finished viewing all the individual pieces, we suddenly feel that we know more about the artist than any straight forward biography could possibly achieve. And since we get the points of view of all these people in her life, we also get to understand how her mental instability effected each of them, personally. This shifting of voices throughout the book is also a bit of an analogy for Rachel's disease - since the behaviour of someone who is bipolar is often very erratic when they are in the manic stages. In fact, Gale mixes chapters that feel very calm and quiet with others that seem very bright and vibrant. There's also another element going on here. That is that on the one hand, Rachel's husband Antony is a Quaker - and Quakers practice their religion in the quietest, most simplified way as possible, with their meetings being almost totally silent. This is juxtaposed against the wild and windy landscapes of Cornwall and the turbulent elements in all the characters' lives. If this isn't a metaphor for a person with bipolar disorder, I don't know what is.
This is not a book you're going to breeze through, even though the language is so approachable and honest feeling, the characters so believable and the story so interesting. No, you're going to want to savour this book from beginning to end, contemplate what you're reading about and think about those things that make you the person you are - both internally and externally. In fact, this may well be one of those rare books you want to read more than just once. That is about as high praise as I can give any book, and I can't impress upon my readers enough just how marvellous this book really is. Patrick Gale is a master storyteller who gives us not just something to think about, but to feel as well. There's nothing "in your face" here and like a clever optical illusion where closer inspection shows that we're only looking at a bunch of disconnected lines, when we pull back we find our eyes and brains have filled in what is missing and has forced us to make sense of the whole. Surely five stars out of five isn't enough, but that's all they allow here, so that's what I'll give it. Get this book and read it soon - you won't be disappointed, I promise you.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © October 2008
This book is available new from Amazon for only £3.99 or through their marketplace from £0.75 (although why anyone would sell their copy is beyond me).
Details from Amazon are -Paperback: 374 pages, Publisher: HarperPerennial (7 Jan 2008), ISBN-10: 0007254660, ISBN-13: 978-0007254668.
Notes from an Exhibition was one of the many books that I purchased with book vouchers a friend gave me for my birthday. Although this event was over 6 months ago now I have just finished reading the book. Now although I enjoyed reading the book and found author Patrick Gale's style to very pleasant to read I don't think it is a book that I could read again.
So what is the book about?
Well the book tells the story of a famous artist called Rachel Kelly. Rachel is bipolar and so her moods can be rather erratic although it is these moods that she accredits some of her best work to. Throughout her life she has remained an enigma to her husband Anthony and her four children and so it is only after her death that they can truly begin to understand her.
After leaving a strange message on the answer phone of one of her children Rachel is later found dead in her studio in the loft. During the weeks the follow her death one of her children stumbles upon a set of marvellous, never before seen paintings in the loft and this sparks not only his interest in Rachel's life but also Anthony's interest too. Not really knowing anything at all about her life before he met her Anthony takes to the Internet to try and piece together the life of the women he loved. Slowly but surely the fragments of her life come together to form a whole making the family realise that Rachel has left them not only the demons that tore through her life but also a wonderful gift.
Notes from an Exhibition is written in a really unique way. Each chapter begins with a note from an exhibition were Rachel's work is being shown. These small segments of information help the reader to piece together the information found elsewhere in the book. Each chapter is also written from a different viewpoint. Some of the earlier chapters are written from Rachel's viewpoint whilst others come from the viewpoints of her sons Garfield and Hedley and well as from her estranged daughter's Morwenna. Later in the book they are also written from the point of view of more distant family members and it is these that really help tie all the fragments of Rachel's shattered life together.
This every changing viewpoint helps to keep the novel fresh and interesting as although it can be quite confusing at first the reader quickly becomes accustomed to the style. More importantly however this method of story telling allows the reader to piece together his or her own ideas about what is happening. The ending similar makes the reader slot together the final pieces of jigsaw themselves and so makes them as much a part of the story as the characters are themselves.
In my opinion however the ever-changing viewpoint is also a metaphor for Rachel's bipolar disease, as the majority of the chapters present different moods and emotions and in a way help to show how Rachel must have felt throughout her life. This along with the careful and delicate handling of the disease throughout the novel as a whole help to present how the children within the family must have felt towards Rachel and her ever changing moods.
As much as I like the changing viewpoint style it is also this that bugged me at times. Because each chapter is written from a different perspective I found that I would finish a chapter really wanting to know more about a particular character or situation only to find that the next-chapter was written from another point of view and therefore I wouldn't find the answer to my questions there. I suppose however that it is this that kept me reading the novel, as because I was drip-fed information it made me all the more eager to soak up as much as I could even if this did mean reading for hours on end.
All in all Notes from an Exhibition is certainly a book that I would recommend. Patrick Gale's style is quite soothing to read and although the novel tells of numerous different plot lines and ideas he manages to tie them neatly together so as not to leave you desperately gagging for more or completely confused when the novel is finally pulled to a close.
The books Recommended Retail Price is £7.99, which for 374 pages does seem a little expensive but then again aren't all books expensive nowadays. By shopping around however you will be able to find this book for a cheaper price or at least be able to purchase it on offer alongside other books.
Now I know I said earlier that I wouldn't read the novel again this is simply because when reading it for a second time I would know the ending and therefore would not be hanging on to every written word in hope of learning something new. As a one time read however Notes from an Exhibition is a stunning piece of work.
I first came across this book in a shop on the Richard & Judy Book Club stand. Reading the back of the book it sounded interesting so i put it on my wish list. So when my vouchers came through, Notes from an Exhibition was bought.
The book tells the story of a famous artists life, Rachel Kelly. She is bipolar and her family have had to grow accustomed to her behavior. She is something of an enigma to her husband Antony and her 4 children. The story gets going when Rachel is found dead in her Penzance studio leaving behind a set of marvelous paintings, the family crave for answers. Her Quaker husband goes on the internet looking for information about her and slowly a picture of a shattered life come together. Rachel has left her children her extraordinary gift, as well as her demons.
Patrick Gale was previously unknown to me. However reading the back of the book it was clear that it was something special. The list of newspapers and critics commenting on the book was unbelievable, "Complete Perfection, Rich and inventive" just a few words describing the novel.
At the beginning of each chapter is a little caption that goes with a piece from an exhibition from Rachel Kelly's life. These little titbit's provide lots of information as the reader pieces together the information. And some of the information does not make sense till you have reached a certain stage in the book.
The book contains chapters that area all from different people's points of view, be it Rachel her children and husband through to more distant family members. This style of presentation is like a kaleidoscope coming together and it is great fun piecing information together.
The way Patrick Gale has shown the bi-polar disease is masterfully done, giving the reader great insight in how it must feel for young children to not understand properly what occurs. The steadiness of the Quaker religion is also brilliantly done helping show a constant that is always there against a mothers unpredictable behaviour.
The way the book jumps from time period to different characters perception is brilliant; with no introduction saying the reader is first confused and then it comes together and the story continues. Gale tells the story of children in the 80's and raving parties through to same children with marital and relationship problems. The Story goes from 1950's all the way into the 21st Century.
The ending is, again, brilliantly written. No extra information is written and you just slot the final pieces together and realize what caused turmoil in the next generation. Reading how and why Gale chose to end the book in this way was brilliant showing, how he thought the final pages play out in reference to a character. The slow drip drip of information you receive in the bok is brilliant and you finish a chapter and spend a few minutes contemplating what you have just read. Book is amazing.
The writing in the book is brilliantly and it is like getting hooked on a soap opera. The way events and characters are portrayed, if only for half a page or chapter, is expertly done and all credit to Gale on this wonderfully, emotional gripping book.
Published by Harper Collins and is 374 pages long.
Amazon best deals, cost £5.99.
Anyone who is a fan of good literature and well written books will be spell bound by this book!