Sunday, February 21, 2021

the last book I read

Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale.

Rachel Kelly is a painter, originally American but settled since her twenties in Cornwall (Penzance, specifically) with her husband Antony. Together they have settled into a comfortable old-ish age, their three surviving children widely scattered and living their own lives.

Rachel has at various points in the past been quite famous but her reputation has faded somewhat in recent years, as her work has changed from large, ambitious, chaotic, semi-abstract work to smaller, more figurative pieces. When the gathered family (well, most of it) clear out her attic studio following her sudden death from a heart attack, though, they discover that she has had a late surge of creativity and has been working on a series of abstract works in her older style, on massive canvases.

The impromptu family gathering gives us a chance to get to know the family, and, in a series of flashbacks to various past times and to various different characters' viewpoints, Rachel herself. What is immediately clear is that she was not an easy woman to live with, either as a wife or a mother, and all the children carry some scars from her treatment of them over the years. The main reason for this is that Rachel suffered from bipolar disorder, which at the time would have been called manic depression. Most of the time she took a cocktail of drugs to manage it, but felt that they dulled her creativity, and was not convinced of their safety in pregnancy (this latter reason could of course partly have been a ruse to indulge the first), and so used to take occasional holidays from the regime, during which time her behaviour could be erratic.

Both of her surviving sons, Garfield and Hedley, are slightly timid and wary of asserting themselves, presumably as a result of not wanting to create any ripples to disturb Rachel's calm moods or draw attention to themselves during the darker ones. As a result of this Hedley is having a hard time communicating his discomfort to his lover, Oliver, an art gallery curator, over Oliver's new friendship with another wild and unpredictable female artist. Partly to avoid confronting this situation Hedley agrees to stay on in Penzance to look after his father and assist him with delving into Rachel's early life, something she was extremely cagey about while she was alive.

During this period the last of the children unexpectedly shows up - Morwenna, known to all as Wenn, always the black sheep of the family and the major inheritor of Rachel's artistic talent, but also Rachel's mental disorders, which have meant her living a strange nomadic sort of life with lengthy gaps where none of her immediate family knew where she was. 

Antony's internet pleas for information eventually bear fruit in an unexpected way: Winnie MacArthur, who turns out not only to be Rachel's sister but to have known her by a completely different name, Joanie Ransome. Clearly this warrants some explanation, and Winnie, evidently reasonably comfortably-off and with some free time, agrees to travel to Penzance to share the information that she has. 

And so we come to the last two sections of the book, which finally confront the two questions the reader has been fretting over for most of the second half of the book, both of which seem to have been equally pivotal to Rachel's life: what exactly happened to Rachel's youngest son Petroc, killed in a car accident in his mid-teens? And what the heck is with the Joanie Ransome/Rachel Kelly switcheroo?

Rachel's back-story is a fascinating one including much teenage angst, early manifestations of her mental disorder, commitment to a mental institution and an exciting escape in the company of one Rachel Kelly (remember our Rachel is still Joanie Ransome at this point) and, upon Rachel's meeting an unfortunate demise under the wheels of a train, assuming her identity and fleeing to Europe to start a new life.

The Petroc segment, which is actually the one which concludes the book, doesn't add a great deal to what we already know, since it finishes before the actual moment of Petroc's death, mown down by a drunken driver (almost certainly someone he knew) on a country lane while walking back from a party while Antony and Rachel were on a rare trip abroad to New York for a show of her work. His sunny optimism - he's just lost his virginity and left his older siblings Hedley and Morwenna happily dancing - is made all the more poignant by our knowledge of what is about to happen to him.

To be honest, the sequencing of those two bits (i.e. shifting them right to the end) is slightly odd, and as I said above the Petroc segment doesn't really add much, other than that it was nice that he got to get his end away before he died. The penultimate section is really the key one, in that it explains how Rachel Kelly came to be Rachel Kelly in the first place. This section and the whole sub-plot around Joanie/Rachel has a slightly incongruous Barbara Vine feel to it, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it feels like it belongs in a slightly different novel, and the whole suitcase mix-up which enables the identity swap is a bit of a clunkily implausible MacGuffin

But the rest of it is good, the family dynamics in particular being very convincing, as are the highs and lows of Rachel's moods, and there is a general warmth and optimism towards humanity throughout, even its more damaged examples. You have to balance a sympathy for what must have been a debilitating condition with a recognition of the monstrous selfishness and cruelty of her behaviour towards her children, and the feeling that surely even under the most oppressive moods you retain the power to choose to behave differently. I mean, maybe you don't, I really don't know. There is an amusing/appalling interlude with Dame Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives that Gale's afterword is at pains to stress is a fiction, although she does seem to have been a bit peculiar in real life.

Antony is the character who feels a bit underwritten; as it is he's a bit implausibly saintly and forbearing, although we are invited to infer that this is because of his active involvement with the Quaker movement. I am a bit dim so I found repeated reference to his circle of Friends with a capital F a bit odd until I clocked that this is how some Quakers refer to each other. The only other criticism that one might make of the book is that it's all very white and middle-class; I think this isn't really a fair criticism of one book - it might be a fair criticism of me if books of this type were all I ever read, but I like to think that's not the case.

Patrick Gale's website contains some interesting notes on the writing of Notes From An Exhibition, and a link to a video clip wherein he is interviewed about it by Stephen Fry.

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