I didn’t want this novel to finish, it was wonderfully immersive. It is the story of a family, where the mother, Rachel Kelly, suffers from bipolar disorder, yet creates acclaimed art. I picked up the book because of the cover, an artist holding her brushes. I like reading about art and artists even if they are fictitious.
Each chapter begins with a note from an imagined posthumous exhibition of Rachel Kelly. A work is described and dated for example : “MING FROG BOWL (1960). Oil on board. Dating from the early years of Kelly’s marriage, when economy forced her to recycle her materials, this tiny painting is worked on the back of a larger work….” We have no illustrations of these artworks but we can “see” them in our mind from the descriptions.
The chronology of the book goes back and forth, beginning with Rachel working on her last paintings, an idea from a dream. Rachel is known for her abstract art (personally I prefer the term non-figurative) and lives with her husband and family in Cornwall. Antony her husband is a Quaker and a steady rock for his wife. They have four children each quite different from the other. Garfield, the oldest is not Antony’s but the bastard from an affair Rachel had with a university don. Then there is Hedley, who lives in London as a househusband to Oliver, who runs a gallery and represents various artists, some more demanding than others. Morwenna is a drifter, who like her mother suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition that was once known as manic depression. Then there is the benjamin of the family, Petroc.
Each chapter is like peeling away the layers in one of those pass the parcel bundles passed around at a children’s party, each reveals more about the family and the difficulty they have living with a mother whose illness makes her unpredictable, that they must be tiptoeing around during her bad spells. Rachel’s early life in Canada, before Antony is a mystery even to Antony and is slowly revealed as the book progresses.
The book covers many areas like dealing with mental illness and its links to creativity (so many great artists had at least a touch of madness), there is an evocative description of Cornwall and a reverent view of Quakerism, one of the few non-judgemental religious practices.
The ending is unforgettable, I won’t spoil it, though there are pointers earlier in the book to the last pages.
Now, where did I leave my tube of cadmium yellow….