Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Portrait of an Artist

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale


To try to describe the plot of Patrick Gale's novel "Notes on an Exhibition" is as difficult a task as to try to explain a piece of abstract art. In fact, this novel is less of a story than it is a portrait of a personality and the life around her. The action of this book revolves around Rachel Kelly, an artist who came from Canada and lived most of her life in Cornwall. What's more, Rachel is bipolar (manic-depressive), and this affects not only her own outlook on life, but also all those around her as well as her art. With nothing is truly obvious from the outset of this book, the full story is only revealed once you've finished reading the last page.

What's more, Gale sets up this book in a fascinating way. To begin with, Gale prefaces each chapter with background notes for the different pieces in the posthumous exhibition of Kelly's artwork. Of course, this is where Gale gets the title of his novel. These notes are essentially tiny insights into Kelly's artistic world. Within these chapters, we get snapshots in time, or vignettes from the various other characters in the book. While Rachel is still the central person here - her life and work is the thread of continuity throughout all these stories, allowing us to see everyone else in her life, and each one on their own. This concisely done without any long descriptive passages, but rather pieces of Rachel's life, through both her eyes and through those of the people that lived with her. Even more fascinating is to see what parts of their lives each of the characters focus upon, as their own personalities and problems color what they tell us.

Gale's choice of third person narrative might have made the dialogue seem less realistic. However, Gale's true artistry comes through by proving he knows his characters so well that each one of them has their own voice. To do this linearly would have been the easy choice. Instead, Gale makes huge jumps in time from one chapter to another. This means that there were a few times when I wasn't completely sure whose story we were looking into, but this fell away very quickly within a paragraph or two. Again, this might sound disconcerting, but Gale carefully chooses his prose to make it feel very natural.

One reviewer likened this book to a kaleidoscope, with different colors and shapes weaving into different patterns to form a whole. This is a very good analogy for this book, although I'd prefer to stick with the metaphor of an art exhibition. Each painting (or, in this case chapter) tells its own story with insights into the artist. Once we've finished viewing all the individual pieces, we suddenly feel that we know more about the artist than any straightforward biography could possibly achieve. Since we also have the points of view of all the people in her life, we also understand how her mental instability affected each of them, personally. This shifting of voices throughout the book is also a bit of an analogy for Rachel's disease - since the behavior of someone who is bipolar is often very erratic. In fact, Gale mixes chapters that feel very calm and quiet with others that seem very bright and vibrant. Finally, the last element comes from Rachel's husband Antony, who is a Quaker - and Quakers practice their religion in the quietest, most simplified way as possible, with their meetings in almost absolute silence. This is juxtaposed against the wild and windy landscapes of Cornwall and the turbulent elements in all the characters' lives. If this isn't a symbol for a person with bipolar disorder, I don't know what is.

With this book, Gale gives us honest and approachable language, believable characters and the interesting story, that you'll want to savor from beginning to end, contemplate what you're reading and think about what makes you the person you are - both internally and externally. There's nothing "in your face" here and like a clever optical illusion where closer inspection shows that we're only looking at a bunch of disconnected lines, when we pull back we find our eyes and brains have filled in what is missing and has forced us to make sense of the whole. All this means is that Patrick Gale is a master storyteller who gives us not just something to think about, but to feel as well. In fact, this may well be one of those rare books you want to read more than just once. That is about as high praise as I can give any book, and I can't impress upon my readers enough just how marvelous this book really is, and deserves a full five stars. Get this book and read it soon - you won't be disappointed, I promise you.

You can buy this book for your Kindle from Amazon, in other eReader formats from Kobo, as an audio book from iTunes, or in paperback from The Book Depository.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)