Notes from an Exhibition

Patrick Gale, Notes from an Exhibition (2007, Harper Perennial 2008)

Consensus at the Book Club was that this is excellent. Penny brought it home as part of her swag and urged me to read it. Since she also sounded as if the book made her yearn to become a Quaker, and went to the Glebe Library to borrow every Patrick Gale novel she could find to take away on our current holiday, I understood her to be strongly recommending the book. Resistance was useless. I agree – it’s a wonderful read.

Far too many novels, even very good ones, have me at least occasionally counting how many pages I am from the end. Not this one. It reminded me of the two-laughs-a-page rule that a comic novelist friend of mine swears by – any fewer than that you’re losing the reader, he says. Notes from an Exhibition isn’t a comic novel, but it manages at least two flashes of something a page. If the descriptions of Quaker practice and ethos don’t hold you, there’s the engrossing web of relationships of a family whose mother is diagnosied as bipolar. If that’s not enough, there are engrossing accounts of an abstract painter’s creative process. There’s a steady progress towards the heart of a mystery, and a sense from early on that we’ll get the detail of a family tragedy before the last page. The narrative shifts among at least half a dozen convincing points of view and back and forth in time, so that the story emerges with four-dimensional solidity. There are sharply visualised minor characters, some of them trailing hints of complex, heart-wrenching narratives of their own. I wish I’d got to the final chapter before my other Book Group’s evening on erotica, because it includes a lovely account of a teenage boy’s first sexual encounter: a straightforward narrative, with the emotional meanings front and centre.

As you can probably tell, I’ve joined the consensus.

Patrick Gale was on Radio National’s Book Show in February, and among other things it was heartening to hear him defend his main character against Ramona Koval’s charge of being a terrible mother.

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