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Notes from an Exhibition

Fourth Estate 2007
RRP $27.99

Patrick Gale’s latest novel takes the reader into a world of Quaker funerals, Cornish beaches, Canadian asylums, and Oxford art colleges. "Notes from an Exhibition" sounds exotic and distant. But it is, in fact, familiar and intimate.

Rachel Kelly is the central character, a famous and eccentric Canadian artist who has married Antony Middleton, an honourable school teacher from Cornwall. When Rachel and Antony first meet at Oxford, she says to him:  "You’re a good, clean Quaker.You believe in truth and the little bit of God in all of us but I’m a miserable, hooked-on-sin Presbyterian and I’d be nothing but bad for you." (p. 25)

This doesn’t prove (entirely) to be the case. They raise three sons (Garfield, Hedley, Petroc) and a daughter (Morwenna); and create a sanctuary on the Cornish coast amidst Rachel’s turbulent mental illness as well as a hovering family grief.

The story is revealed with gallery notes describing Rachel’s body of artwork across four decades. It moves across times and places, from character to character, recalling each family member’s unique struggle – to belong, to believe or to survive.

Rachel’s bipolar disorder disturbs her loved ones through the all-consuming questions it provokes; should I trust, should I make a home, should I tolerate mediocrity, should I wander down the paths of creativity?

Finally, by its powerful conclusion, Notes from an Exhibition is about vulnerable souls who find themselves uncertain of their boundaries with the world and the people they love. Patrick Gale has created a wonderful retrospective, replete with lasting images of people and places. A novel worth a second viewing, for sure.

See the author’s website at: http://www.galewarning.org/

Reviewed by Mark Young