It is always a little dispiriting not ‘getting’ a book that others hold close to their hearts. Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition is a Goodreads smash, its appeal straddling ages, genre-snobbery and borders. Not only that, but national treasure and the unofficial-cleverest-man-on TV, Stephen Fry, LOVES it. As proof, there’s a great big quote on the cover assuring us Notes from an Exhibition is the best thing since the invention of the printing press (“this novel is complete perfection”). Perfection! Wow, this has got to be good, right. Right?
But Notes from an Exhibition sort of drifted in front of my eyes like a piece of seaweed on a calm Cornish sea. I kept waiting for that magical moment when a book comes to life and you click with it like a soul mate. But this novel and I never made it past that first awkward date.
Canadian-born, Cornwall-dwelling, Rachel Kelly is a once successful artist who has spent her life in the shadow of bipolar. She drops dead in her attic studio one morning where she had – as she did everyday – locked herself in to paint furiously, even though her work had fallen out of fashion in the years leading up to her death. Despite popping her clogs within the first few pages, this is Rachel’s novel. It’s about her legacy, both personally and professionally, as well as a posthumously unearthing her secret history and identity.
Notes from an Exhibition certainly doesn’t want for a plot, it’s stuffed full of story lines that meander across oceans and time zones, veering from 1970s Cambridge to small town Canada and back again to modern day Penzance, Notes from an Exhibition’s true base. It’s choc-o-block with drama – and characters, oh my god, so many characters – but despite the constant drama, the tension never seemed to build; the big reveal or twist would sneak past me and it was several pages before I realised I’d missed another character’s personal tragedy.
Nothing is too trivial for Gale to try and tease out some suspense. There was a whole mini-drama involving Rachel and Anthony’s third child, Hedley who was convinced for about five pages that his husband was having an affair with a woman. This woman and the entire narrative were then dismissed a few chapters later with an unconvincing sentence.
Beyond the tangle of story lines, Notes from an Exhibition examines, at arms length, the link between talent and depression. Rachel, it’s suggested, is less productive when she’s drugged-up, while during her manic periods she is capable of painting her greatest work. Gale stops short of suggesting that there is a direct correlation, although Rachel seems to believe it. Gale also doesn’t wince from the impact bipolar has on the sufferers’ family. Rachel has few redeeming features – she’s short tempered, mean to her children, rude to her husband, selfish, indifferent and self-absorbed – personality traits that can’t all be blamed on her condition. But her fragile state means her family must dance lightly around her, bending to her moods and whims. Anthony, Rachel’s gentle, patient, honest Quaker husband – and potentially the novel’s most interesting character – gets rather lost in the dysfunctional noise of a family of four children damaged by the power of their mother’s personality.
Despite dealing with a heavy subject matter and including several very dark events, there was something rather twee about the style of Notes from an Exhibition, its tone almost jarringly jolly. It’s not that Gale doesn’t take bipolar, or any of the other problems raised – and boy, we’re not short of dysfunctionality here, we’ve got drug use, homelessness, underage sex – seriously. He’s clearly done his research, but perhaps this is part of the problem, this novel doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart, but from the textbook. And while the novel is well constructed – I liked the conceit of framing each chapter with the notes from Rachel’s posthumous exhibition – and a thoughtful one, it was, for me at least, as dramatically gripping as a cream tea and not as enjoyable. But I can’t help feeling that I’m the one missing out…
by Suzanne Elliott