How to explain Exhibit Alexandra by Natasha Bell? Weird, wonderful, strange, disturbing, awe-inspiring… there are a lot of words! This novel takes the reader through many emotions as they watch the narrator tell a story of what she thinks may have happened while she has been gone. It is a baffling story with a pretty revealing ending! Exhibit Alexandra was published on 8 March 2018 by Penguin.
Exhibit Alexandra is told from the conditional point of view of an artist, Alex, who doesn’t come home one day and is reported missing to the police by her fraught husband. She is telling somebody what she thinks will have happened since she went missing, hypothesising about her husband and children, as well as their friends. She considers how things will have happened, wondering if her friend will have made a pass at her husband and so on. As the case grows cold, her husband does not give up hope. Reading letters from Alex’s NYU roommate, Ameila, he tries to figure out where she might have gone, who might have taken her and if everything is connected. Along the way, he discovers things about his wife that make him wonder if he ever really knew her and the ending does reveal the truth.
Throughout the book, there are many references made to real works of art which have pushed the boundaries in history and the impact they made. There are debates between the characters over what constitutes real art and what is justified in the name of art. Themes include self-harm, body mutilation, betrayal and breaches of confidentiality.
What I liked
Exhibit Alexandra is a very well-plotted novel which really grips the reader, as I was desperate to find out where she was and how Amelia was connected to all of this. It is a very unexpected book, with the art references and debates offering a hidden educational element to the story without being glaringly obvious and slapping you in the face with lots of art history. I really liked watching Marc from Alex’s expected point of view, because you can see that she believes in him and knows that he loves her. He is unwaveringly faithful and loyal to the fact that she will come back, or he will find her either way, regardless of what has happened. Bell has very carefully gone through every detail (alongside a talented editor) to ensure that all the links were flawless and there were no plot holes, which would have been easy to cause when writing this book.
I actually found the shocking elements of the book quite shocking, as they are proper revelations that hit you as they hit Marc, and the reader is left questioning everything alongside him. This is a psychological drama through and through. It really puts family life into consideration in a similar way to If He Wakes, which I reviewed earlier this week. There is a feminist element to the narrative that I enjoyed because it picks apart the family dynamic and the expectations of the mother, the father and even the children in their behaviour. One specific part I found intriguing was the idea that Alex’s children should look up to her, in her eyes. She wants them to revel in her work and aspire to be like her, which I found an odd concept.
What I didn’t like
The only reason that this review is not 5 stars is because of the slow pacing in the middle of the book. After the start hits you from a Gone Girl angle and the ending throws you to the other side of the room with its reveal, I felt that there was no need for all of the non-progressive prose in the middle of the book. Between Amelia’s letters, Marc does barely anything of interest and in this part, I feel that more art references were thrown in to pad out the story. I would have preferred reading a continuous stream of the letters, which offered insight into the psyche of Alex and Amelia. Perhaps some unsent responses from Alex would have also been useful.
Overall, I did very much enjoy reading Exhibit Alexandra. I felt that Bell creates strong characters and offers a unique perspective; I have never read a book from a conditional point of view before. This book is for people who love to be shocked, but don’t mind waiting a while and reading some non-progressive sections to get to the final punch, which is a big one, in the gut. Thank you to the publisher for sending a hardback proof copy of Exhibit Alexandra in exchange for an honest review.