Family fortunes

<strong>Notes from an Exhibition</strong>

Patrick Gale <em>Fourth Estate, 384pp, £14.99</em>

I

Unhappy families have been a staple of novels since long before Tolstoy wrote the famous opening sentence of Anna Karenina. His words recur at the beginning of John Lanchester's wonderful Family Romance, a memoir that is often stranger than fiction, and they also spring to mind on reading the latest novel by Lanchester's Oxford contemporary Patrick Gale, whose romance involves the same familiar mixture of love and deceit.

Gale's 14th novel, Notes from an Exhibition, boasts several recognisable themes from what is already an impressive body of work: the Cornish setting, for example, the intermingling of gay and heterosexual desire; separation and death. The mood is retrospective, like the title, which refers to the short chapter headings in the form of extracts from a catalogue of paintings by Gale's heroine, a mentally unstable artist on the fringe of the St Ives set.

The opening scene describes the middle-aged Rachel getting ready for an exhibition at a small gallery in Newlyn and speculating in the bathroom mirror about the likely attendance of her children. The action of the second chapter takes place almost half a century earlier, in Oxford, where Rachel meets her future husband Tony following an unrequited love affair with a married lecturer that has left her pregnant and suicidal. She is dead before the start of the next chapter, though Gale uses the funeral and its aftermath to tell the intervening story, which is relayed from the perspective of the other family members.

The posthumous structure of the narrative owes something to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as does the matriarch at its centre, but Gale is a very different sort of writer and one hardly inclined to experiment with form. Indeed, the real pleasure of a Patrick Gale novel often lies in the old-fashioned quality of its flawless plotting.

Here he tackles the vexed question of a mutual suspicion, as well as love, that exists between parents and children. Rachel's eldest son, Garfield, and his wife, Lizzy, remain childless until the end of the novel because of an unconscious fear that their offspring might inherit the grandmother's bipolar disorder. His sister Morwenna vanishes without trace in a state of mental breakdown that echoes Rachel's own alienation at the same age from a respectable upbringing in Canada. The unexplained death of her youngest son, Petroc, casts a shadow over the novel until the final scene, when it is explained in the context of his brother Hedley's coming out.

Gale has written skilfully in the past about the delights and torments of adolescence. Many of the relationships in Notes from an Exhibition, too, oscillate between innocence and experience. Underlying the ingenious narrative is a somewhat conventional moral world, in which people fall out with their relatives but are ultimately redeemed by love or by having children or by rediscovering lost family connection. Other aspects of the novel come as a surprise, however. The Cornish family into which Rachel marries belongs to the Society of Friends and the rituals of Quaker truthfulness, the idea of candour and of bearing witness, take on a metaphorical force at times.

The insularity of Cornwall, somehow cut off from modern life, is another recurring motif. Everything drifts towards Land's End, where the author lives. "Being virtually an island, the west of Cornwall seemed to contain nothing but Cornish culture," he writes, "Cornish people, Cornish names and numbers when you were there but they were so deeply diluted as you moved away to even halfway up the county that coming across the 01736 code or someone called Penberthy in Brussels or even London caught [Morwenna's] attention like a waving flag."

The same intensity defines Gale's writing. His sense of place is utterly coherent and he makes the background easy to navigate, thanks in part to wonderful names of towns and villages such as Marazion and St Just. His description of life in a mental asylum is just as vivid - and another example of being cut off. But just like the stroppy version of Barbara Hepworth who makes a brief appearance at a fundraising gala, the novelist's England is held deliberately at arm's length from the real thing. Few readers will complain. Some of the events are melodramatic, almost hackneyed, but the writing itself is so unpretentious, and Gale brings such patience and generosity to the story, that one cannot help but respond to his uplifting faith in human nature.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet