I often read for the writing as much as for storytelling and although I rarely read poetry, I’ve found that novels by poets are often written with a pleasing attention to language, each word carefully chosen and not one wasted. Below are five favourite novels by poets, all with links to my reviews.
Helen Dunmore once said that poetry was a more natural medium for her than fiction although she exceled at both. Reading almost like a prose poem but with a page-turning pace, Talking to the Dead showcases her talents beautifully. Nina has gone to help her sister Isabel while she recovers from the difficult birth of her first child. Both Nina and Isabel’s husband are deeply concerned for her mental and physical welfare but eventually find themselves drawn into an obsessive affair. Nina begins to remember scenes from her childhood with Isabel, in particular disturbing memories of their brother who died at three months. A richly complex novel, Talking to the Dead is written in language which is as sensuous as the summer heat which seems to permeate every page.
I like to think Dunmore would have enjoyed Victoria Redel’s Before Everything in which five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying having called a halt to the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the constant conversation the five of them share, struggling with the imminent loss of their dear friend. Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s an empathetic, tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin. I was very much attracted by the novel’s premise but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing. It came as no surprise after I’d read it to find that Redel is also a poet.
Very different from Redel’s novel, Megan Hunter’s gorgeously written The Harpy sees Lucy’s anger unleashed when she discovers her partner’s affair despite his professed contrition. A way must be found to deal with this fury and the couple makes a bargain: Lucy will hurt Jake three times, the nature and time of the hurt to be of her choosing. Hunter punctuates Lucy’s narrative with brief impressionistic observations, exploring the loss of female identity, subsumed in domesticity, motherhood and the imbalance between men and women. Her writing is spare but often lyrical, her images dramatic and powerful. Delivered after a sequence of particularly striking beauty, the ending is quite devastating.
Appalachian poet Ron Rash’s use of language in Above the Waterfall is no less striking but more quietly so. All set for retirement, local sheriff, Les Clary is faced with a case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion after his town’s river is poisoned killing the trout stock provided for the resort owned by his old schoolmate. Fingers are pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land but Becky, the park ranger with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Rash punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. After the Waterfall is a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.
The title of Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death offers a hint that she’s a performance poet with an acute facility for language. It was that clever wordplay that made me read this sharp, funny novel all about the subject we Westerners do our best to sanitise with all sorts of euphemisms. Mrs Death is a tired black cleaner, eager to unburden herself, who follows a young, blocked writer home and finds him only too ready to listen. As he records her many stories, Wolf recalls the loss of his mother in horrific circumstances and his own miraculous escape. Then Mrs Death disappears leaving him with his loneliness. Godden’s novel explores gender, class and race with humour and humanity, all within the context of that which none of us can escape. Her writing is both playful and sobering, witty and smart. It made me laugh out loud and brought me up short.
What about you – any novels by poets you’d like to recommend? I’d love to add a few to my list.
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