Monday, 3 March 2008

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Harper Perennial

QUAKERLY living and the link between creativity and madness should make for an odd mix, but Patrick Gale's 13th book is compelling enough to send readers rushing out to buy the other 12.

Antony Middleton is calmly considering whether he's done the right thing in taking a philosophy masters when he meets fellow-student Rachel Kelly as she takes a Ming bowl from its case in the Ashmolean.

In typical Quaker truth-telling fashion, he points out that she should really put it back, because now that he's seen her, he'll have to tell someone.

It's only days later when he's bringing the pregnant student home to Cornwall to shelter her, abandoning his studies for the teaching job he'd been avoiding.

It is the start of a lifelong love affair, annotated by the chapter headings, notes for an imaginary retrospective of Kelly's work.

This is a book that makes you laugh and cry and want to go to Quaker Meetings - if they're like those described here, long calm silences warmly embracing the attendance.

Gale writes incisively about abstract art, and drops heartbreaking clues in the paintings and objects described that foreshadow the action to come.

The writer has a background of service - his father was a prison governor at a time when, as Gale says himself, "there was still a very strong belief that prison wasn't about punishment, it was about preparing men...curing them and preparing them to go back into society as useful people".

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