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[175] Notes From an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

exhibition“Nobody could quite grasp the idea that Rachel’s own family had so little knowledge of her life before she met Antony. They had a birth-date and knew she was probably Toronto-born, although people often said she had a Massachusetts accent…and so had trained all so early never to ask about her past that it had become a habit to act as though she had none.” [154]

Gifted artist Rachel Kelly had been an enigma to Antony since day one. That she simply took a Ming blue-and-white porcelain bowl out of the glass case with such graceful nonchalance and takes it to the window for an examination under better light was more than enough to have floored the then-MPhil student. He felt out of place with the adult world until his quirky meeting with the genius painter who was sporadically mad. She first rejected him, as much for youth and perceived goodness as for lack of experience. But before long he swung between happiness at being taken into her confidence and the excitement at being initiated into her world previously closed to anyone.

After the birth of her first son, Garfield, which was conceived from an affair before Antony, Rachel stopped taking medication for her bipolar disorder during pregnancies. Other than the three post-natal nervous breakdowns, Rachel and Antony lived such independent life within their marriage that he was deeply conditioned to spending days on end with her only nominally present. When she was not at her anguished, crippling lows, she kept erratic hours, seized by sudden need to work. In fact, she snapped into such a cramming mode when she was found dead in her Penzance studio.

The new paintings she left behind raised new questions of who she really was. What was her life like before she came to England? As Antony appealed for genealogical information on the internet, and as her son emptied pockets of her clothes and drawers, fragments of shattered life slowly came to light. The manner in which the story unfolds is in tune to how the random pieces of clues fall into the place. The prose, as a result, is powerful but schizophrenic, nudging back and forth pockets of memories over time.

Patrick Gale explores the workings of human relationships (family, siblings, marriage, gay relationships) and the torment that mental illness causes its sufferers and also those around them. How does the sickness redefine happiness? It explores how the haunting demons get into the skin of the children. How would the children discern if their mother’s high spirit springs from a real happiness and not a sick happiness? After all, their childhoods have been overshadowed by regular crises so that they have been wary. They have grown up thinking of her as mad first and their mother second. Gale pursues the link between mental illness and creativity by nailing the subtle fact that while sanity is often enmeshed with social and economic stability, art often perpetrates this sanity and rationality. [Read/Skim/Toss]

14 Responses

  1. I’ve been waiting for you to finish and review this book…I know you have been taken with it! It sounds truly phenomenal, although probably a bit wrenching at the same time. It has made The List of what maybe I will get to next year!

  2. It sounds good Matt, thanks for one more to add to the TBR list!

  3. I’ve had this one in my reading queue forever — I got a free one sent to me — but I’ve never been interested enough to read it. Perhaps I will move it closer to the top of the pile, thanks to your review.

  4. Wonderful review — and sounds like a very powerful book. I’ll keep an eye out for it!

  5. I had not heard of this one before but it sounds very interesting… I’ll have to add it to my list!

  6. Wonderful review, Matt. I think this is the first book going on my TBR list for ’09.

    Hope you have a wonderful New Year!

  7. Braveo Matt! This sounds like a wonderful complicated book, full of psychological nuances. I still have Kansas in August in my pile but I’ll add this one as well. 🙂

  8. Sandy:
    It’s very phenomenal, but trying to figure out the timeline from the incoherent narrative can be wrenching at times! The story-telling reflects the schizophrenic nature of the woman.

  9. adevotedreader:
    I hope you’ll enjoy this author and in particular, this book. 🙂

  10. kimbofo:
    Lucky you live where Patrick Gale’s books are easy to find. I have never seen one, used or new, here in San Francisco, not even bookstore that specializes in gay literature or the works of gay authors.

  11. Megan:
    Patrick Gale’s prose is very searching and robust. I hope you’ll enjoy reading his works. Try also Aerodynamics of Pork, Rough Music, Ease, and Kansas in August. 🙂

  12. Heather:
    I hope you’ll enjoy reading his works. Try also Aerodynamics of Pork, Rough Music, Ease, and Kansas in August. 🙂

  13. iliana:
    I feel so honored! I hope you have had a wonderful, joyful, and bookish bloggy break. Patrick Gale is very intriguing, no matter which book of his you’ll pick up. 🙂

  14. John:
    Kansas in August is my favorite of Gale, although Notes from an Exibition will linger in my mind for a long time! 🙂

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