Notes from an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

notes exhibBipolar disorder and suicide are rife in my family so this book gave me plenty to reflect upon. Their effects ricochet down the family tree in all sorts of ways that the person concerned could never have envisaged or, if they did, they simply just didn’t care, maybe because there unable to see clearly. The Author compares himself to Iris Murdoch: suicides stir up cycles of guilt, family deaths are like Russian dolls, each new pain encasing the shape of ones that have gone before

Rachel bequeaths paintings of genius, done when she was off medication. But she also bequeaths secrets and emotional damage.

Rachel Kelly took lithium or valproate since she was a girl. Lithium is more time-specific so a missed dose is dangerous and she once forgot to take it on holiday and needed an emergency prescription but hid the pills and started self-harming. The anti-depressants prescribed at the Radcliffe Hospital led to suicidal behaviour yet she ended up having a heart attack like a ‘normal’ person

Her Presbyterian childhood meant that she was miserable, hooked on sin. She could only become absorbed when playing and working, which is why her medication was such a handicap and why not taking it was like a holiday with the cost being well worthwhile, at least for her, if not those around her.

Those of us who have visited ‘mental wards’ will recognise the description of the hospital whose records are missing, where visitors are limited to 2-4pm, the built-in coat hangers to stop self-harming, Monday’s ECT, before which she would get wound up on Sunday night. Other patients regarded her as a stuck-up bitch and were afraid to talk to her. The Gideon’s bible with her insane annotations is also par for the course.

The Doctoris unconcerned as to whether nature or nurture causes mental illness and believes that people will get their sweets (pills) elsewhere if he doesn’t prescribe them

At her funeral, a cardboard coffin and thethrowing of rosemary springs was thought to be less brutal than earth but the mechanical digger comes along anyway. People were embarrassed for want of a priest and at the reception all earlier unsaid things bubble up

It took someone with a solid, Quaker spirituality like Antony to cope with her and to take charge of her medication. He was shocked at how few possessions Rachel had and how she could throw paper back books away.

His M.Phil was in Smollet. He took on a badly paid teaching position. Because faculties were mixed, different combinations of students attended his lectures. A Quaker and a virgin, he fount it hard to make friends so the Quakers provided a ready-made community, Quakers are more exuberant (and more overtly Christian) in Africa, which helped his personal development. (In the UK, some meetings regard themselves as superior if people rarely speak – they blame Oprah Witney shows for the current trend wherein people talk self-indulgently and endlessly about themselves.

He is not the only eccentric (or maybe he is one oft he few sane people) who refuses to have a mobile. And what’s wrong with pissed in the bedroom sink? It all ends up in the same place and it saves water.

The depiction of his Adult literacy classes is accurate. They are spreading to numeracy and computers and are full of the same hopeless learners who return every year and start to use spell checkers – so they will never learn how to spell by themselves.

Garfield, Rachel’s oldest,poured all the drugs down the loo and temporarily blocked it. He fears to have a child for fear of passing on the mental illness gene. Sulky, he doesn’t go into much detail about his mother as people are liable to be shocked

Morwenna, Rachel’s second daughter, diagnosed herself bipolar. Her mother makes Morwenna more self-conscious instructing her how to hold pencil, techniques, and makes here play into work and expects ‘right answer’ from her. She asks her small talk questions even though they see each other every day. She tells someone that Morwenna is admiring her lovely vulvas and Morwenna ia not sure what it means but that it is rude

 Hedley, her third child, is still avirgin at 19, read Maurice in his gap year but had no courage to go into gay bars though his feet bled from museums. He became C of E, got confirmed, and was shocked at hearing a priest preach against homosexuality. There was some confusion as to whether a church was Roman or Anglo-Catholic – St. James’ Piccadilly is neither, being liberal and very inclusive where homosexuality is concerned.

Despite her bohemian credentials, Rachel thinks her son to be less of a man for being gay. He checked his mother’s packing behind her back

He admires Petroc’s ease with his body, is shy like a typical school master’s son but is relaxed when in role e.g. cinema He kisses Troy but goes no further, goers to an art exhibition specialising in homoerotic works and keeps checking to see if Oliver had left a message – he hadn’t

Oliver, his boyfriend, isfed up with phone calls from Rachel and calls her a talentless bitch during the last 40 minutes of her life, with unforeseenconsequences

Petroc is self-contained like Antony. During his birthday outing to the beach I was expecting the worst, as the tide and overhanging rocks were mentioned. His death when it came was curiously peaceful as he was so happy.

Kelly’s obsessive sketching of planes and autistic precision painting bricks is well-portrayed.

Winnie longed for a sibling to spread the pressure upon her. She starts top attend , weekday Holy Communion but her faith went under the train wheels with Joanne, who had run wild, stopped going to church, taken up smoking reefers out of the window, included, nudes in her portfolio and was pushed in front of a train

The title, refers to the information cards displayed beside works of art in a gallery or museum. Each chapter begins with a different example, all of them referring Kelly’s art or possessions.

About the novel’s stimulus, Gale wrote: In the wake of my father’s death a couple of years ago, I found myself spending a great deal of time visiting my widowed mother. The usual post-mortem business of recycling vast quantities of letters and drawers of old clothes escalated when she decided to snatch the chance to move from a flat which now seemed far too big for her to a perfect but much smaller house just around the corner. On the one hand I found I resented spending so much time away from my home but on the other I discovered that there was something horribly seductive about sliding into an elderly parent’s comfortable routine. In the name of filial duty I was putting my usual responsibilities on hold, my impatience dulled by regular, old-lady treats from M&S, nightly gin and nibbles on the dot of six, and a strange regression to a sexless but immensely peaceful second adolescence. I began to spin a story out of the experience which ended up being the strand of the novel involving Hedley’s prolonged retreat to Penzance.

Comparing it to A Perfectly Good Man, he says that Notes From an Exhibition: is told from multiple viewpoints so that our perspective on the hero keeps shifting. Structurally both novels are double helices with the central figure’s story, from their perspective, being told in reversewhile the chapters told from the point of view of the other characters follow a (more or less) chronological order. As in both novels, it is the reader, not the novelist, who plays God in that ultimately he understands far more than any character in isolation. The reader is the only one in possession of all the facts.

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