Patrick Gale has been an author I have meant to read a lot more of for some time. I first read him back in my late teens/early twenties in a rare moment, during those years when I barely picked up a book, when one of my flatmates told me I ‘simply had to read’ his novel ‘Rough Music’. I remember liking it enough to think I should read him again but then as I didn’t really pick up a book that was no good even with the best of intentions. A few years ago I picked up his short story collection ‘Gentlemen’s Relish’ which I liked however it has been recently reading his latest novel (which I can’t talk more about at the moment) and ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ that now have me wanting to rush out and read his other books, and indeed re-read the two I have read. Here is why…
When artist Rachel Kelly dies her eldest son Garfield is shocked when his wife, Lizzy, tells him that ‘she ended up having a heart attack like a normal person.’ Rachel Kelly is/was (and I use both the past and present tense because whilst she dies very early on in the book she remains the strongest character and drive of the novel throughout) an alluring, if confusing, woman to her husband Anthony and also sometimes the most perfect and most horrendous mother to her children, the aforementioned Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc. As ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ moves forward we learn all about Rachel, during both her highs and her lows creatively and personally, in a really interesting way as with each chapter, interestingly headed by a note which appears next to several pieces of her work in a posthumous exhibition, is told by one of them or through Rachel’s own memories.
As the book went on I was a little bit worried that I would find this a little bit annoying however Patrick Gale really makes it work. Seeing in her family members heads, though Morwenna has disappeared and Petroc is dead (both these strands adding a mysterious nature to the book too as we don’t know why initially), it is like Patrick Gale uses each one as a colour, or tone might be a better word, to create a fuller picture all over of one woman’s life. As the book goes on and more stories are shared the full picture appears, initially a little impressionistic before fully forming. I liked this effect. You often forget Rachel is dead as she describes moments such as a birthday of Petroc’s on a beach one summer giving the dynamic of their relationship even though both of them are dead. Very clever indeed as it all just works.
Something that I also really loved about this book was the way that there isn’t a plot as such, Rachel is dead we know this, there are actually more plots than you could believe. With a family everyone is different and so in meeting the characters and where they are in life, Garfield and his wife being sort of happily married yet in fear of having children, Hedley being gay, Morwenna being rather like her mother plus the death of Petroc etc really means you have multiple little complexity plots simply based on characters who seem as real as anyone you could meet on the street.
There was a little downside with this; I never really felt I quite got to know Anthony. Rachel and her children, and their relationships, come to the fore so much that sometimes you forget about Anthony which seemed a shame as he was the stoic point in Rachel’s and the family’s life, but maybe that is a point Patrick Gale is trying to make (I shall ask him) with Anthony? The other teeny issue I had was with the names of all the children, I could imagine Rachel giving them to her children but they sometimes broke the spell, especially as every time I read Garfield a huge comic ginger cat would appear in my mind. That might sound petty, and it didn’t ruin the book for me at all as I enjoyed it immensely, but I want to be honest and that was a small snag now and again.
There are many books that use the death of someone, as they open, to show the dynamics of a family under a time of great emotional pressure. This causes any cracks that may have gone unnoticed previously to once and for all crumble, as secrets are revealed and tensions mount. ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ is such a book at a first glance, however I think Patrick Gale manages to write one which is quite different as while having the drama of death and family secrets at its heart it never falls into melodrama. I also think it’s one of the most realistic novels about families, their love for one another and their differences, that I have read in quite some time. I hugely admired this book.
I am not at all surprised that Saint Richard and Saint Judy of books have chosen him twice as an author. Who else has read ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ and what did you think? Which other books of his have you read? Where should I go next, as I have decided I want to read much, much more of his work?
Oh and if you have anything you would like to ask Patrick then let me know as I will be in conversation with him and Catherine Hall tomorrow night as part of Manchester Literature Festival, and I promise to ask as many of your questions as I can during, before or after the event.