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Notes from an Exhibition

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Synopsis from Waterstones.com: The new novel from the bestselling Patrick Gale tells the story of artist Rachel Kelly, whose life has been a sacrifice to both her extraordinary art and her debilitating manic depression. When troubled artist Rachel Kelly dies painting obsessively in her attic studio in Penzance, her saintly husband and adult children have more than the usual mess to clear up. She leaves behind an extraordinary and acclaimed body of work -- but she also leaves a legacy of secrets and emotional damage it will take months to unravel. A wondrous, monstrous creature, she exerts a power that outlives her. To her children she is both curse and blessing, though they all in one way or another reap her whirlwind, inheriting her waywardness, her power of loving -- and her demons!Only their father's Quaker gifts of stillness and resilience give them any chance of withstanding her destructive influence and the suspicion that they came a poor second to the creation of her art. The reader becomes a detective, piecing together the clues of a life -- as artist, lover, mother, wife and patient -- which takes them from contemporary Penzance to 1960s Toronto to St Ives in the 1970s. What emerges is a story of enduring love, and of a family which weathers tragedy, mental illness and the intolerable strain of living with genius. Patrick Gale's latest novel shines with intelligence, humour and tenderness.


This review has been posted on Waterstones.com

This is the first Patrick Gale book that I have read and I have enjoyed it very much indeed.


The ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ are in fact the chapter headings, each one a note for an item in a retrospective exhibition relating to the life and work of the main character, artist Rachel Kelly. Each chapter relates to an episode from her life, either from Rachel’s point of view or from a member of her family. The story does not unravel chronologically, but skips backwards and forwards in time, slowly revealing the personality and mystery of the woman. The reader learns how Rachel has dealt with bipolar disorder and how her life-long illness has also effected the life of those closest to her. The beauty of the book is that it shows that her illness should not be viewed as debilitating, and reinforces the fact that people with bipolar disorder can and do have very productive lives that are filled with much love and happiness. I feel this book really does help to promote an understanding of such illness, and that would definitely be a strong recommendation for it.


I grew fond of all the characters and was particularly impressed with the way that Gale was able to reflect the difference in all the personalities with each chapter. For instance the chapter dealing with the visit of two of the children with their father to their mother in hospital, from the point of view of her oldest son Garfield, was written so tenderly I really felt that it was being narrated by the young boy. The emotions of the child felt so real – I found it very moving indeed.


Very highly recommended, a book to savour!

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I've been looking forward to this coming out in paperback so I'm pleased to see that its imminent inclusion in the latest Richard & Judy list means that the publication date has been brought forward. Here's hoping I get book tokens for Christmas!

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I remember being greatly impressed by Patrick Gale's Rough Music (2000), its probing dissection of the dynamics of a decidedly dysfunctional family, and its clever narrative moving back and forth between childhood and adulthood.

I then found his subsequent novels, A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, each slightly less satisfactory than its predecessor.


I felt his latest, Notes from an Exhibition, had more interesting content, but found the non-linear narrative very hard to deal with this time. The links and echoes between the different sections did not seem clear enough, and I was left wondering whether the different sections hadn't just been thrown together in some totally random order right at the end. In the final analysis, I found the fragmentation to be a defect rather than a necessary and enhancing characteristic of the novel.

After all, we learn pretty quickly that the youngest son died in adolescence - so why on earth keep the actual death until the very last line of the book?



And there was one important element which didn't seem to work at all:

we learn that the main character, Rachel, was thought to have been killed in an accident... only to learn later that it was in fact her travelling companion that had jumped under a train, and that Rachel (up to that point Joanne) had thenceforward assumed her identity... But, given that a funeral duly took place, officially for Joanne, it is really difficult to accept that this would have gone undetected... unless of course the real Rachel's body had been mangled beyond recognition... in which case surely this needed mentioning somewhere...?



I felt that this seriously undermined the credibility of the overall organisation.


Then there are other rather isolated bits and pieces that don't seem to fit in: Garfield's one-night stand with a woman in Oxford who refuses to give him her name; the threat to the gay son Hedley's relationship with Oliver posed by a predatory, domineering - but frustratingly undeveloped - female character.


There is also some very messy editing in several places, resulting in clumsy sentences like this one:

Summoning a sense of purpose, she folded up the greasy piece of paper and walked to stuff it into an overflowing concrete rubbish bin then turned back to the car feeling thundery but recovered and grateful, now that her face must be blotchy and her eyes piggy with weeping, that she could rely on Rachel to pay her little outburst no heed.

Well at any rate I needed to read that several times, and even now am not sure I've fully understood it... "walked to stuff it..."? - "feeling thundery"??


But then there are the welcome reminders that Patrick Gale can always be counted on to regale us with the quirkier and more eccentric side of problematic relationships; one has to feel a moment of intense pity for a bewildered lorry-driver who disarmingly confides to a hitch-hiker (Rachel's daughter Morwenna) about:

how his wife had allowed him no sex for nearly a year, despite his long absences, and how he was wondering if she had turned lesbian and, if she had, did Morwenna think it would be within his human rights to ask at least to be allowed to watch.

It's surely the naïve invocation of "his human rights" that makes this little revelation so funny and tender at the same time.


Then there's adolescent musing about why kissing is more intimate than what it leads to:

The rest was intimate too, naturally, but it was limbs and body parts whereas mouths were sort of where your personality came out.

The notes both by and about Gale himself at the back of the paperback make for interesting reading too, and the book as a whole sheds a fascinating light on both Quakerism (Rachel's husband is a devout Quaker) and, of course, bipolar disorder, the tentacular theme of the novel.


Notes from an Exhibition is perhaps not a masterpiece, and to my mind has a certain number of flaws. But it is also very generous-spirited: Gale's reference, in the notes, to a close friend who lost his life to bipolar disorder makes it clear that the writing of the book was something of an exorcism of guilt and anger. His courage in facing up to the darker side of certain people's lives deserves our praise and our respect.



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I submitted the above review to amazon.co.uk - except I took the spoilers out, because it wasn't possible to do them.

They promptly posted it, and it equally promptly garnered four out of four "helpful" votes...

Then it disappeared... and I'm wondering why... I've written to ask them. Does anybody have any suggestions? Could someone have complained about the reference to suspected lesbianism?

I think we should be told...



EDIT: well I've had my answer... apparently I "would have" been guilty of either profanity or spuriousness...


Please allow me to explain:


We do exert some editorial control over our customer reviews.

Amazon.co.uk does not

tolerate profane or spurious customer reviews. Our intention is to

make the customer review forum a place for constructive commentary


feedback, so reviews that fall outside these guidelines are removed

from the website.


The full community guidelines can be seen on the following oage:





If your review was removed, it would have contravened one of these



We apologise for this situation.


Thank you for your interest in Amazon.co.uk.

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I've read most of the book on the airports and on the plane and it really gripped me. I found the notes on the beginning of each chapter very interesting focal point which then have been developed into a separate story. Enjoyable read.

Might read more by Patrick Gale.

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I agree with JFP's comments.The construction of the novel is unsatisfactory. In fact I would go so far as to say that it reads like a first draft : there are some excellent things in the novel : the characters are well drawn, the bits about St Ives, the artists' colony, bi-polar illness, family dynamics - these all show that Patrick Gale is an author to follow. He has a surprising ability to understand minutiae of family life, quite similar to Anne Tyler (whose books he recommends at the end of the novel). But, and it is a big but, the novel is disjointed and unsatisfactory because of its construction : it reads like notes or jottings : the novel needs to be gestated and re-written so that it flows as one story. As it is, it is like a stop-start train, as soon as you think you are going on the journey, the train stops again and then you have to wait for ages before it starts again. In the case of this novel, you get engrossed in one character : and then there is a break not only of character but also of time, maybe jumping forward several years or back. Very unsatisfactory from a reader's point of view anf does not add anything to the overall novel. Maybe Patrick Gale was under pressure from his publisher to produce the book. But I wish he had resisted. If he had waited another year, he could have produced a really excellent book out of this material.

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Having just finished Notes from an Exhibition I want to strongly defend its structure from the previous criticisms. It seemed to me an enticing emotional jigsaw, constructed with enormous skill, where each individual section was satisfying but also left the reader with the longing to know more about the characters, a longing that is gradually met. This is a wonderful novel, not least for creating a sense of a body of artistic work by a key character that you wish really existed and could be seen and for the brilliant 'notes' about this character at the beginning of each chapter that evoke her personality with clever art history pastiches. Highly recommended all round!

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I really enjoyed the style in which this was written, the non-linear narrative doesn't worry me one bit, and the way we were only allowed to know a part of each character's story so readers are forced to make up their own minds about what really happened. Patrick Gale has a superb style, he's very beguiling and funny but deeply emotional too and though there's a lot of characters all of them have distinctive voices so you always know who you're reading about.


The points jfp raised -

I do agree slightly about Petroc but it didn't spoil the story



I think we were supposed to assume that the train had gone over Ray's head. Ray and Joanie also looked reasonably like each other, both dark haired, round about the same size so the confusion seems possible.



This has been one of the most mesmerising books I've read this year, and this has been a good year too, I'd recommend it highly.

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Not surprisingly, I am with Viccie on this one.  I really loved this book and had a hard time tearing myself away from it when real life got in the way.  It seemed to be a perfect picture of that family and those people in that time.  This is true with all of his books and it made me realize how many books, even books I really liked, fall short of that standard.  Thank goodness Patrick Gale has made it across the pond, so that more of his books are available to me.

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