Rachel Kelly a bipolar artist is working on a new collection of paintings in the confines of her pokey little loft studio within a Cornish seaside resort when without any warning whatsoever she has a heart attack and dies.
Notes of an Exhibition by Patrick Gale is about the life of the artist Rachel Kelly investigated (as is all too often the case with many an artist) when she becomes popular after her death. Not only are people in the public eye interested in her, so too are her family who gradually piece together the events of their mother’s life. All, including her patient and loving husband Anthony, have to pick up the pieces and to put them together to finally understand the depressed eccentric artist that was their mother and wife.
The story is presented before us in a seemingly random pattern of particular periods of time in Rachel’s life. With this in mind, what I especially enjoyed, being an artist myself, were the little segments that discussed the pieces of work painted in life by Rachel. These portions of writing would have been on the little cards found in an exhibition next to the paintings. This made me think of recent visits to an art gallery and the devouring of the information typed onto these little cards to help to understand a painting that much more. Those little cards in this book were equally as instructive. Not only did I crave this information in the book but would have devoured the actual Rachel Kelly pictures.
What I truly loved about this book was the continuing balance by Rachel Kelly of her artistic brilliance versus psychological condition. Creative dead ends are a fact of life for anyone involved in the producing and delivering of art – so the insights provided by the writer were genius in my opinion. Where does inspiration come from and how does it come about? We get a bit closer to understanding and respecting those principles. In Rachel’s case, she was on medication to even out her mood swings but became aware that her creativity was suppressed whilst on the pills. Naturally, and to the detriment of her family life, the artist stopped taking them in order to continue with her paintings having to face those familiar demons of her psychological condition.
Throughout the book, you get to know the characters around the central character who I think are brilliantly drawn from her husband Anthony who always put his wife’s life first and looked after her to her children including her youngest son Petroc. There is a daughter Morwenna who has effectively inherited her mother’s disposition and psychological difficulties and two other sons Garfield and Hedley.
This is about an artist’s family life as well as how a family suffer (and benefit) from having a mother who is bipolar. It’s a very clever story and one that I really enjoyed. Patrick Gale continues to write novels that stop you in your tracks. I can highly recommend having a read of ‘The Whole Day Through’ and ‘Ease’ by the author.