I received an advance review copy of this novel as part of the Goodreads Giveaway. This was very exciting because I would have wanted to read it anyway, biographical fiction has been on the ascendant over the past number of years, as has the notion of the helpmate, the powerful woman, silent in the shadow of the great man. These women have been too long unsung, their husbands may bask in glory but their wives’ memories are crumbled to dust. In The Poets’ Wives, David Park imagines for them a voice, lends them an experience and yet I could not help wonder at the idea that once again, these women’s voices had been superseded by a man.
All three of the poets’ wives featured muse on what they have sacrificed to support their husbands, the infidelities endured, the hardships faced. The first narrative is in the voice of William Blake’s unknown wife Catherine, the second from the perspective of Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife to Russian poet Osip and lastly the modern Lydia, recent widow to a fictional Irish poet Don. Park himself is an Irishman so despite his assurances in the afterword, it was tempting to imagine that the final section represented some part of his own experience or at least observations. This was particularly strange in the case of Nadezhda, who found her voice in her own account of her struggles, Hope Against Hope. Still, I felt that Park sincerely wished to honour the role of women in the creation of art and the power of literature and love. Each story stands as an independent novella, each woman having different but related experiences as spouse to someone whose eyes were locked on something separate to them.
All three women outlive their husbands, each responsible for their husbands’ legacies. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s husband died in a Soviet work camp after having been arrested for writing anti-Stalin poetry, for years she literally guarded his poetry in her own memory. Catherine Blake battled to guard her husband during his mental illnesses and then Lydia deals with the practical consequences of her husband’s death. Yet all the while that they support their partners, they are each left feeling alone and lacking – shrunken and ignored by the world. They have been wooed with words, but words alone have not been enough to sustain them.
The only poet that I had been previously familiar with was William Blake, I had to study him at university and was always slightly underwhelmed by his florid style. He is well known for having advocated a form of ‘free love’ which must have been difficult for his wife to put it mildly. I found Catherine’s section the most affecting emotionally, it was the only one written in the first person. Free of punctuation, it continues in a stream of consciousness and is not always easy to follow. Each sentence has been meticulously constructed and I found myself having to return to reread sections to ensure that I had picked up on everything.
Catherine was a subdued figure, fearful of many of Blake’s passions and bewildered by his visions. She could not read the love letters he sent her until he taught her, she is utterly dependent on William. One upsetting anecdote comes from the real life incident when Thomas Butts visits the Blakes while they are reading Paradise Lost ‘in their natural state’, William gaily tells Butts to join them but Catherine herself has no say. The deepest pain comes through from the miscarriage that Park imagines for the Blakes that apparently costs Catherine her fertility. William is written in gross insensitivity, a bitter charge against a dead man, but the power of biographical fiction is to fill in the spaces that history left blank.
Nadezhda Mandelstam’s portion of the story was a real trudge, unsurprising given that she spent so much of the time moving from place to place, desperate to stay ahead of the authorities. Unlike the other two parts, this is not abstract or based on a mere hypothesis, the facts of the case are undisputed and Park is obviously trying to be accurate. The scene where Nadezhda waits in a queue for hours to pass over a parcel of clothes to her husband’s captors is truly exhausting, her grief draining to read – she is a woman stripped bare by circumstance and her husband’s foolhardiness. She endures what has destroyed her husband, sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of her husband’s words, even the poems written for his lover. In that respect, I felt that her courage and resilience far outstripped his, her burning determination to protect his truth for a time when it will be appreciated.
The final contemporary segment was the easiest to read but also confused me. I had expected the ‘modern wife’ to have more freedom, to have made some progress from the time when Catherine was alive. Still in many ways, Lydia was the most downbeat. Her own daughters and Lydia herself are bewildered by the fact that she had remained with Don. Lydia reflects on Don’s inability to provide a steady income, that he had disdained her job while living off its income just as he also showed contempt for his daughters’ occupations – Don’s biggest financial contribution has been in dying, his life insurance finally providing some security. Still, it is their shared but distinctly separate response to grief which I found most thought-provoking. Don’s indifferent parenting has been a source of sorrow and disappointment, yet he appropriate their son Rory’s death for his poetry, his anguish writ large in the world while Lydia silently seethes, knowing that she is the one who carries the loss most heavily yet the world consoles her husband. I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s Lamentations, in which he writes of his daughter’s death, heart-rending stuff but he had been a terrible parent. It got me thinking about Hugo’s much-neglected wife, she must have grieved deeply and long but her words are lost.
Words bring us truth, bring us hope, bring us to a fuller and more perfect knowledge of ourselves. Poetry is important in our culture and is to be treasured and I think that this novel has some very noble intentions in attempting to shed light on the lives of the women who fought to preserve it. However, I think that Park would have created a more memorable work if he had found a way of creating more dialogue between the different generations. Park has shown high skill as a writer, moving over divisions of time, geography and political beliefs but I felt that the final fictional section was slightly out of place. The Poets’ Wives is a pensive novel, trying to remember those who are always forgotten and I felt it rewarded the patience needed to wade through it – Park writes with sincerity and beauty, rewarding the everyday stoicism and unnoticed courage of women.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by A&C Black on February 27th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General
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