Notes From an Exhibition, By Patrick Gale

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The Independent Culture

Returning to the Cornish setting of his earlier works, Gale's 14th novel plunges into artistic circles of 1970s St Ives for a memorable story of family dysfunction and mental illness. Rachel Kelly is a gifted abstract painter, her career mapped out in the art-speak exhibition notes that accompany each chapter. As a troubled young woman, she's rescued by her husband-to-be, a mild-mannered Quaker, and brought back to his hometown of Penzance. Here, she has four children and a series of breakdowns. Sedated with the chemical cocktails of the day, she locks herself in the loft to paint - her children finally, and fatally, inured to the hurt caused by her soaring highs and anguished lows.

A writer finely attuned to fluctuations in emotional temperature, Gale does a brilliant job of conveying the angry neediness of a mother battling with mental illness and an artistic ego. Rachel's selfishness is not glossed over. In a painful scene, she ruins her daughter's 10th birthday by having a row with Barbara Hepworth in a mini-mart. Caught in a rip-tide of cattiness, the girl's appetite for scampi and chips evaporates, though she is switched on to art for life. In this convincing and astute novel, Gale grapples with age old debates about madness and creativity, but doesn't opt for any easy answers. Rachel's artistic talents are fostered by a family taught to excuse the creative temperament, but also anxious to keep the more erratic energies of an unstable parent at bay.