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Submitted Literature

Notes From An Exhibition

By Patrick Gale

Review

Gale’s deservedly acclaimed novel tells the story of Rachel Kelly, a successful and renowned artist with Bipolar Affective Disorder.  The relationship between BPAD and creativity is well documented, and this text contributes a fictional but acutely accurate portrayal of the difficulty of living with a disorder that both creates and destroys.  The manic and hypomanic phases allow Rachel to paint and, paradoxically, the depressive phases provide darker inspiration.  But the depressive phases cripple Rachel, as both mother and wife and as artist. The text contains small gallery-style cards supposedly for each of Rachel’s paintings, which directly link her mental health to the art pieces that she produces.  Importantly, the narrative explores Rachel’s adolescence and the early signs of mental illness, alongside the traumatic impact this has of her developing psyche when it is undiagnosed and put down to ‘bad behaviour’.  Elements such as the dilemma of staying well on medication that dampens creativity and zest are also portrayed sympathetically.  The narrative, woven through several different perspectives, focuses on the ripple effect of bipolar affective disorder on those close to Rachel, giving an insight into each individual's personal difficulties – both the inheritance of mental health problems directly and the inheritance-by-proxy of psychological issues induced by the strain of living with a close relative with bipolar affective disorder.

Key Themes:

  • Bipolar Affective Disorder
  • Carer Issues
  • Creativity and Madness
  • Post-natal Depression
  • Suicidality

Significant Quotes / Pages

3 – “He doled out her daily dose of lithium each evening and watched her wash it down with a sip of water.  All had it changed to something else recently?  Valporate?  She forgot.  Pills had been a part of her daily routine for so long she would have swallowed arsenic tablets without a second glance.

Only not any more.  She had recently perfected a pass or two from the Puffin Book of Magic so he only thought he saw her swallow the pill. In fact it was glued to the underside of one of her fingertips, sticky with a quick stroke across her tongue as she opened her mouth for the pill.  It worried her to flush drugs down the lavatory - pollution troubled her - so she hid the pills under her pillow then slipped them into her bedside table draw or through a gap in the floorboards once they switched their reading lights off and Antony had turned his back.”

81-82 – “With every other child there had been a sickening chasm after their birth, a blank of depression, worst with Garfield, from which she had slowly crawled to find a staring baby, ready-made as it were, thoroughly bonded with Antony and mildly suspicious of her.  It was of her own doing.  Her own wild indulgence.  Jack had made her brutally aware of the facts by now: that the only way to avoid the depression was to avoid the withdrawal from medication she insisted on during pregnancy.  But - and this she had told nobody, not even Jack - the glorious assent before the fall and the work she could achieve in climbing make it worthwhile.  Perhaps.

Yet with Petroc something had been different.  Instead of the sickening plunge there had come merely an intense interiority, a sense of her world narrowing down to a focus no larger than her baby’s dimpled hand.  She had barely spoken for weeks and the children had been so upset they had to be sent to stay with friends, but it hasn't been a full-blown, life-denying depression like the others.” 

 

146-7 – “All this would pass.  She knew it would.  She knew babies grew up and couples rediscovered harmony.  She knew she would have time to paint again in a while and that her breasts would not always hurt so.  She knew the weather would not always be so blustery and dark.

And yet the darkness that stole upon her was like no darkness she had experienced before.  It had no real cause and it came upon her with devastating speed, like a storm across bright waters.  Quite suddenly, in the space of little more than a day, whatever little gland provided hope or a sense of perspective ceased its merciful function and she woke from the afternoon nap that Truby King insisted mother and baby take in their separate rooms and Garfield was crying through the bedroom wall and softly, from the drawer where she kept the pills and Jack had weaned her off during pregnancy, a second, malign baby was whispering to her.

She left Garfield to cry, fearing to look on him, and took the pill bottle from the drawer.  It felt wrong to die in a house that was so good and where the good baby, the innocent one, was lying so she pulls a fisherman's smock over her jersey and her thickest coat over that and gathered up the pills and a bottle of sloe gin Fred had made for them and took herself out to the studio.  There she swallowed the pills, in several painful fistfuls, washing their gritty bitterness away with great, greedy glugs of the sour-sweet liqueur.  Then she lay back on the broken-down chaise longue with a blanket over her and waited for death.”

 

Reference: Patrick, Gale. 2007. Notes From An Exhibition. London: Harper Perennial, 2008

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Friday 20th March 2009