If you are thinking of reading Notes from an Exhibition and don’t want your reading of it tarnished, best to skip this post.
Every reader comes to a book with their own mental history and therefore will read it in a completely different way, perceiving it in absolute opposites. This happened at our first Book Club with Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale.
Notes from an Exhibition is simply about a family dominated by a bipolar, artistic mother. After her death the characters reflect on pieces of their lives, gradually revealing significant events and how they struggled, died and survived.
I loved the book. During the days I read it I floated along in its hold, absorbed by the characters. I found it very meditative, the calm way in which the reader was drawn into each character’s reflections. I found the style gripping, the way Gale gradually feeds bit of information from different directions, as remembered by different people. I wanted to keep reading, hoping, being an obsessive for detail, that I would find out exactly what had happened to everyone, but knowing there would be pieces left for my imagination. Aware of this I concentrated while I read, going back to check information Gale had snuck in to earlier chapters before I knew what I was looking for.
So while I was sucked in and utterly absorbed, other members of the Book Club were unmoved, wondering when the story would start as they got to the end. “If it had been a film on late at night I wouldn’t have stayed up to watch it,” D said. Some thought nothing “happened” whereas I’d had to stop myself reading, forcing myself to take a break after some chapters so that I could properly absorb what had happened rather than racing further into the narrative – when I’m enjoying a book I often speed through it and feel sad afterwards that I may have missed the nuances.
Each chapter is preceded by a “Note from an Exhibition” – finally you understand the slightly obscure title. Many of us really liked these notes, finding they gave so much insight in themselves. Gale uses detail and I loved the way that just by noticing who had loaned the picture to the exhibition, for example, you could deduce another strand of the story. Others found these notes distracting; at times you did have to work at launching into a new theme and character at the start of every chapter. Someone commented that the date of the item described helped to cement the fragmented narrative in time. A most interesting remark came at the end of the evening, just as we were drifting into discussing the issues of our real lives rather than fiction. Maybe there was no exhibition, H suggested, maybe Rachel herself was the exhibition and the Notes, and chapters, reflections on her and how she influenced her family rather than commentaries on art.
It’s certain that this is a book about the effect of a “difficult” (Gale’s word not mine) mother on her family. After reading it I decided that the book sold on the back cover was not the book I’d read. The blurb talks of “a painful need for answers” about Rachel’s death and I’d assumed there was suspicion of murder and some sort of investigation. In fact, Rachel’s death as an incident is, for me, insufficiently explained. We learn she was making a terrible noise, made a rambling call to her son Hedley and flung some stones through a window, but then we understand that she keeled over with an unexpected heart attack. The GP among us felt this was unrealistic; with what we knew of her, a sudden, fatal heart attack was unlikely. Someone else commented that as she needed to die for the story to take place, but Gale didn’t want the violence of suicide she’d tried so often, he had few options left of how to frame her death.
Thinking about this I wonder whether over introspection of books is an inherent problem with book clubs? I remember feeling turned off reading by A’Level English Literature because I grew tired of tearing books apart rather than just enjoying them. N commented that as she finished Notes from an Exhibition she felt she liked it, but the more she thought about it the more she found inconsistencies and flaws she didn’t like. I had loved the book but by the end of our discussion wondered if my love of it had been marred by points raised – we agreed to rate the books before we arrived at Book Club next time to prevent any contamination of our initial opinions. No author will ever get everything “right” for every reader. Is our need to discuss and analyse therefore fair on an author? Are we in danger of retrospectively spoiling the reading experience for ourselves? A book has to be tangible to draw you in but how much scrutiny should a book have to withstand to be worthy?
Stephen Fry comments on the front cover that “this book is complete perfection”. After reading, and before other’s critiques at Book Club, I agreed with him. Despite my reappraisal I would consider including Notes from an Exhibition on my list of Top Ten Books. This list is still being compiled. It’s impossible to conclude; how to chose just ten books from the many who have given me so much? The most interesting issue, I’ve decided, when choosing your favourite books, is the criteria you chose by. My criteria is “would I read the book again?” There are so many books to read and so little time, re-reading is a luxury I rarely do, which is sad because the same books could offer me many things if I took time to read them at different stages of my life. The time-of-life, place and atmosphere in which you read a book have such an influence on your reaction to it. I read many significant books when I was too young, too intellectually immature, and they have therefore been lost to me. I know I should take the time to try them again.
F said that a favourite book for her would be one about which she could really remember something; so many books are read, absorbed and forgotten. H said a favourite book was one she thought about all the time and just wanted to read – certainly with Notes from an Exhibition my family must have thought I had some ailment as I snuck off to the toilet more than usual, my furtive way of grabbing a few quiet reading moments.
N said a favourite book was one that made her re-evaluate how she saw things and that she hadn’t gained that from Notes from an Exhibition. I, in contrast, did. Gale’s style is for each character to shares their reflections of the past so that our understanding of what actually happened is modified with each new piece of knowledge. I liked this reminder that things aren’t always as we first perceive them to be and that a different opinion or version of events can be a valuable way to find the truth.
There is much in Notes from an Exhibition to take away; images of Cornwall, thoughts on the relationship between mental illness and creative genius and, most interestingly for me, Quakerism. Antony, Rachel’s husband, is a Quaker and the religion permeates the whole book. Its gentle thread was a scaffold holding the book, and characters, together. Through all the pain and chaos, wherever they were in the world, the family members attended Meetings, giving them, and the book, a focus of calm reassurance.
Rachel is portrayed as erratic and selfish, not a good mother figure. Absorbed in her work she neglects her children and is not a natural homemaker. I felt too ashamed to admit that a small part of me could identify with Rachel, the obsessive, compelling desire to create something (with me it’s writing) and the guilt felt when your mental distraction impacts on your family.
Antony is calm, honest and good. Many felt him a weak character, or at least underdeveloped. Was it realistic that he, a quiet studious recluse, would give his life supporting Rachel? But then on the penultimate page we’re told that "he was so practised at thinking of Antony as Rachel's minder" but maybe “it was she who constrained Antony”. How frustrating, N said, that this was not developed. What drove Antony to “care” for Rachel – duty, entrapment, love? N felt a lot of interesting issues were thrown in as asides towards the end of the book without the chance to explore them.
But even with these perceived flaws, even after our discussions and criticisms, I still highly recommend Notes from an Exhibition. I found it a gentle but riveting read, a book with absorbing characters that I wanted to find time to read about. I wanted to know what happened to them, I was compelled. I like to read books set in places as I visit them and will definitely be taking a Patrick Gale book with me next time I travel to Cornwall.