This month, the Literati Reading Group at Tenby Library discussed Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale.
The ‘Exhibition’ of the title is a retrospective of the life of artist Rachel Kelly; the ‘Notes’ are those attached to the pieces on display.
The Notes are also the chapter headers; as the novel is not presented chronologically, they aid navigation by establishing the time period and theme of the chapter.
Some members of the group found it unsettling to have the Notes as chapter headings as the text was smaller and boxed in to resemble cards; they found them physically harder to read, but were rewarded by insights into the chapters.
Rachel is a difficult woman; she has bipolar disorder, suffers from depression, is narcissistic and demanding. She is not really likeable, yet she is very well-loved; she becomes the pivot around which her family turns. Each chapter delves into a particular incident or relationship in her life, and we can see how she dominates her family even, or perhaps especially in her absences.
There is a melancholic thread running throughout, as there is a great deal of unhappiness in the lives of Rachel and her family, but this is just one of the elements which draw together the novel; another significant thread include the Quakers. Rachel’s husband Antony is a Quaker; while she never joins the Society of Friends she regularly attends Meetings and Literati readers felt that the silence and contemplation provided a stillness for Rachel that she lacked at her core.
The novelist, Patrick Gale, describes himself as having a ‘cloth eye’ for painting and put himself through a drawing course to better express Rachel’s artistic mentality. An artistic member of the group considered that he had done well in explaining the interior landscape of an artist to the non-artist.
All members enjoyed this novel a great deal. While this is a literary novel, it is very accessible, with the content delivered in a very measured and thoughtful style. As a group they rated it 8.9/10.
This book is available for borrowing from Libraries in Pembrokeshire; a small reservation fee may be required if it is not at your branch, or if all copies are out on loan.