No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, February 22, 2008

#19: Notes from an Exhibition -- Patrick Gale

"Was she happy?"
"She was bipolar so happiness didn't come into it. She was often high, often wildly elated, which could make her fun to be around but I don't think she was ever steadily content."

I can see this being a book that stays in the back of my mind, and occasionally a scene or a character re-presents itself as I notice something else.

It's plain from the first page that the novel's protagonist, Rachel Kelly, is dead: the 'exhibition notes' that preface each chapter come from a posthumous retrospective of her career as a brilliant but driven artist. The first chapter, told from Rachel's point of view, is a scene from late in her life, from inside her bipolar disorder. Other chapters are told from the viewpoints of her gentle husband Anthony, whose Quaker faith gives him the fortitude to endure Rachel's swings from mania to despair, and from the viewpoints of each of their four children: Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc. Each member of the family has been broken in different ways by Rachel's illness. Each of them holds secrets about Rachel and about the family.

If Notes from an Exhibition had only been about the gradual revelations, it would be a captivating read. It's also about the creative process and about depression, and about the way the two intersect. Some of Rachel's finest work is produced while she's pregnant and off medication: after each child is born she pays the price mentally. Her family learn to accept 'the maddening truth that art was the one thing that stilled and focussed her impossibly restless personality; art won through where her family failed'.

Rachel's illness is diagnosed as wholly chemical: Had she suffered from conventional depression, there was no doubt she would sooner or later have taken a talking cure and been encouraged by a therapist to dig over her life before coming to England. As it was ... her only therapy was chemical-based, which always worked in the end. I've started to wonder if the diagnosis was accurate, because the glimpses of Rachel's life as a teenager in Toronto indicate some pretty grim family stuff. Rachel, though, has built a wall of secrets to shore up her life. Only after the end of the novel are some of those secrets likely to be disclosed to those most intimately affected by them.

The artworks described in the notes at the beginning of each chapter are riddled with clues about relationships, secrets, connections: so, for that matter, is the whole novel. Something (for instance Rachel's collection of beach stones) is mentioned in passing by one character, but only attains significance when another character sheds light on it. (Which stone did Rachel hurl through the window?) There are events that are described only by their absence, by the empty shape of them, by the marks they leave on others. There are events that are never explained, and words that are not spoken. (What did Rachel say to Morwenna?) Yet there's no sense of Gale baiting or puzzling or confusing the reader. The gaps in the novel are the kind of gaps that happen in reality: the things too familiar to dwell upon, the things too hurtful to remember.

I'm not sure I like Gale's prose style: it's either deceptively simple or just simple. There is something simultaneously rough and bland about it. The voices of the characters are less distinct than, say, the voices in Ali Smith's The Accidental. But I find that his metaphors and especially his eye for landscape have crept into my head while I wasn't looking.

I want to visit the exhibition.

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