Reviewed by Harriet Devine
How can I best describe to you this wonderful, powerful book? If I tell you that it’s about a man who falls desperately in love with a beautiful, intelligent, deeply troubled young woman who subjects him to endless abuse, both mental and physical, culminating in an act so terrible that his life is irrevocably changed, you might well think this was not something you wanted to read about. And yet – and yet – though this does indeed describe the plot, or part of the plot, in quite a bald sort of way, the novel is about so much more. Really, in the end, it’s about the persistence of love, and as such, it is, or was for me, ultimately and beautifully uplifting.
John Knox is a successful radio chat host who specialises in confronting bigots and racists with logical, irrefutable put-downs. One day, into the studio for a live broadcast comes beautiful Rachel McAllister, a historian and PhD student. Something John says seems to infuriate her, though he never manages to work out why. Then suddenly comes the shock:
On the tape, the whole thing’s over in three seconds: the flailing tweed arm, my startlement as I realised I’ve been hit and that I’m falling backwards off my chair. Then the moments afterward, where you sit with both hands over your mouth, begging to know if I’m OK; my eventual re-emergence from under the table, stemming blood from my nose with a bunched-up shirt.
The ‘you’ in that extract is a clue to the way this narrative is going, and how it’s being told. John’s story, from now on, is addressed to Rachel, the love of his life, the mother of his child, his abuser, and his destroyer. For her, he lies, allowing the world, and his employers, to believe that he is the abuser and Rachel the victim, even when it means losing his job. But losing his job is not a bad thing in some ways, as he fears for the safety of their child, though Rachel never attacks Josh, only his father. After the final, devastating, attack, the three of them move to John’s childhood home, far in the backwoods of Canada, though tragedy follows them there too.
Intercut with this part of the novel is a second narrative, apparently unconnected with John’s, or rather connected only loosely, as it consists of extracts from the diaries of one John Rutherford, an English soldier in WW1, who is the subject of Rachel’s research. Though the relationship between the two stories is unclear, and only finally coalesces at the very end of the novel, there are distinct and strange parallels between the lives of these two men, though they are decades and continents apart. One thing that does clearly connect them, apart from strikingly similar physical injuries, brings us back to the persistence of love. John Knox’s is for Rachel, unwavering even after she is no longer with him, and John Rutherford’s for Phelps, his secret lover since schooldays, the only person he ever loved, the person he longed to live with although society made that seemingly impossible.
As for the poet in the title, he appears only briefly – he is James Lyons, a young man from Wiltshire, who Rutherford encounters in the trenches, and whose poetry about the war endures long after the war is over and the poet is dead. Rutherford never fully recovers from his association with Lyons’ death, but Knox is able to perform an important act of redemption on his behalf when he visits Lyons’ ancient, blind sister. And, in doing so, he discovers a secret, long hidden, which solves one of the abiding mysteries of his own childhood.
So yes, this is a novel about love, and about redemption, and about forgiveness, of oneself as well as of others. But it’s also about what it is to be a man – what that meant in the early years of the twentieth century and what it means in the present day. And intimately connected with that is an exploration of the nature of war, and a tragic (and of course now very timely) picture of the horrors of war, and its effects on the young men who set off so cheerfully in 1914 to fight for what they believe is right.
After I wrote all this, I happened on a review of the novel in The Independent, written by somebody who really didn’t get it. I suppose that’s always going to be the way – look at the controversy that’s sprung up over The Goldfinch, which I reviewed here. It was one of my all-time favourite novels, but some people have been stomping all over it, apparently. Perhaps that’s bound to be the way with big, important books. So I can’t promise that you’ll love The Death of the Poet as much as I did, but I certainly hope you will.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
N Quentin Woolf, The Death of the Poet (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2014). 9781847659477, 405 pp., paperback.