Monday, February 09, 2009

Martin SPICE reviews ... Notes from an Exhibition

A classic of its genre

By Patrick Gale
(HarperPerennial, 374pp)

BIPOLARITY, or manic depression as it used to be called, must be hell to live with.

Predictability is surely one of the most treasured things about those who are near to us and whom we love. We may at times find it frustrating—“for heaven’s sake, do we have to go through this again?!”—but being able to predict a reaction or response is at some level deeply reassuring.

In bringing up children, consistency is a key virtue. Children spend a lot of time trying to work out who and what they are, how they must behave and where the boundaries lie. If the boundaries are forever moving their world is in turmoil and they literally do not know where they stand. Children from such backgrounds are rarely happy children. In the house of a bipolar mother, little can be taken for granted and there is no consistency even where there is great love.

Welcome, then, to the world of Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition. Its central character, Rachel Kelly, is an artist of considerable talent who, at the time of the novel, has slipped somewhat from fashion. Nonetheless, she remains a formidable creative force, producing fine work from the loft of her house in Cornwall, the southernmost county of England.

The book takes its title and its structure from an imagined retrospective exhibition of her work. The “notes” are the commentaries that accompany each painting in the gallery, guiding the viewer through the phases of her work and the key artistic events of her life. It is a highly original and effective means of linking the key episodes of her life into a coherent structure, and the novel gains structural integrity from doing so.

The relationship between mental illness, depression, bipolarity and art is well known—or it may be truer to say that many artists seem to suffer from depression and somehow forge great art out of it. In his notes to the book, Gale specifically mentions the writings of poets Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton as sources of inspiration but there is nothing hackneyed or derivative about his handling of his own character. Rachel Kelly may be an emotionally torn human being but there is nothing of the angst-ridden cliché about her. Gale has a real gift for presenting well-rounded characters and it is in full force here.

Rachel’s foil in the book is her long suffering husband Antony, who is almost her emotional opposite. Quiet, consistent, a devout Quaker, he is the glue that holds their family of four children together and while he may not have her fire and capacity for highs, he equally does not descend into the troughs of despair to which she is prone, frequently dragging their children with her.

It is tempting to see the children as victims. The eldest, Garfield, holds strongly to the traditional role of eldest children: concerned and responsible, in a childless marriage out of an unconscious fear that bipolarity may be inherited and passed on to the next generation. Morwenna has her own mental problems. Petroc is killed in slightly odd circumstances that turn out to be linked to the “coming out” of his brother Hedley’s homosexuality. This may not, then, be exactly a happy family, but for all that there is, ultimately, something impressively cohesive and coherent about it.

The choice of Quakerism as Antony’s, and periodically some of the children’s, belief system is inspired. Quakers are a well-established group of non-conformist Christians, committed to peace and non-violence, to truth, simplicity and silence.

A Quaker meeting is simply a gathering. If someone is moved to speak, they do so, but their contributions to the thoughts of others will be short. Whole meetings may pass in silence. There is no priest or leader. It is a belief system rooted in radical thinking: unconventional, strong, and strangely moving. It is, therefore, the perfect source of Antony’s strength in dealing with the noisy and chaotic world that his wife can and frequently does create.

The setting of Notes from an Exhibition is Cornwall, the extreme southwest of England. As a county, Cornwall has always been isolated (it is a very long way from London—over 300kms), different in its thinking, Celtic rather than Anglo-Saxon, and home to a very strong artistic community and tradition. It is no coincidence that the Tate Gallery, that temple of modern British art in London, has a branch there. Home to artists as diverse as the potter Bernard Leach and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (there is a brilliantly scurrilous cameo appearance by her in the book), there are whole schools of artists focused on St Ives, where Rachel has her house and studio, and the surrounding area.

Notes from an Exhibition is a fine novel. Its character portrayals are excellent, the plotting is meticulous, the setting is evocative and Gale writes very very well. I can probably pay the book little greater compliment than to say that when I started to review it I became so drawn into its world that I actually ended up reading the whole book all over again. Gale’s meditation on mental illness, art, family and relationships is going to become a classic of its genre.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 8, 2009


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