Review: Notes From An Exhibition; Patrick Gale

A great book, but let down by its ending… (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Harper Perennial (Harper Collins)- published in 2008

Paperback edition- 374 pages 

I found this to be a fabulously written, engrossing story… until the end. 

I truly can’t remember the last time I read a book that had such a completely unsatisfying dénouement. It’s actually left me feeling a bit annoyed to be honest. I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, finally got around to it, became utterly absorbed in it and then… ugh. 

It’s such a shame, because I found this to be a spectacular read at least 98% of the way through. This ending allows the reader to draw their own conclusions, I understand that; yet so many other things were concluded or neatly explained within the plot that I just can’t comprehend the sudden ending (or lack thereof). 

At times bleak, at times beautiful, this book explores the life of a bipolar artist, Rachel Kelly. Following her sudden death, some of her unknown paintings are uncovered by her children, which sets them, along with Rachel’s husband on a journey of discovery about a woman who they still doubt they ever truly knew.

I have to say that I loved how dominant Rachel remained as a character within this novel, even following her death. Her compulsion towards her art had such an impact on her husband and children that they still heavily feel its effects resonating within their family even when she has gone. It is clear that the author has meticulously researched the subject of mental illness and by twining the two themes within this story, the reader is vividly given the sense of Rachel’s tormented genius. 

The plot of this novel is constructed sublimely overall, weaving an un-linear narrative that manages to skilfully encapsulate the perspectives of all of the main players in this story, both past and present. Following Rachel’s death at its start, the reader gradually get to learn aspects of her history and comes to understand perhaps, why she is the way she is and her continued struggles with mental illness throughout her life. She isn’t portrayed in a sympathetic light and I genuinely didn’t like her as a person as she had so many attributes that made her read as quite an unpleasant, uncaring individual (especially her attitude towards her children), but I still found her to be a fascinating, multi-layered protagonist. I wanted to learn about her and try to comprehend what made her tick. Her estranged daughter, Morwenna, was another mystery, though again, she was only handled on a somewhat superficial level within the narrative and I didn’t feel that I got to know as much about her as I had anticipated.

I really appreciated the way that Gale incorporated the varying facets of Rachel’s life into descriptions of her posthumous art exhibition pieces. I know nothing about art and don’t profess to, but I thought this was an excellent device for adding further insight to the plot as well as allowing valid scope for Rachel’s interactions with other characters. It made the changes in time understandable and easier to follow as a reader and was cleverly done.

So, I do genuinely still feel this book merits four stars, despite the crappy ending, for the way it held my attention all the way through, its fabulous characterisations and the exquisite prose, though I would perhaps be cautious about picking up another book by this author in future, should my high hopes once again be flattened at the final hurdle. Still, if you are looking for a book about dysfunctional families, then it has to be said that you could definitely do a lot worse than giving this book a try. I also think this would be a brilliant choice for reading groups as it contains so many thought-provoking topics.

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