Five Novels I’ve Read by Poets

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.

Cover image for Talking to the dead by Helen DunmoreHelen 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, comeCover image for Before Eveyrthing by Victoria Redel 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.

Cover image for The Harpy by Megan HunterVery 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 Cover image for Above the Waterfall by Ron Rashretirement, 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 Cover image for Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Goddenlanguage. 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.

If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.

38 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read by Poets”

  1. What a great way of looking at some books. I know I’ve often said the writing of a book is beautifully poetic – but can’t think of an example right now. I’ll come back to you when I do! I just love the kind of writing when the actual words, construction and thought behind how they’re expressed is a pleasure in itself.

  2. I have a place in my heart lists always for Dunmore and Godden. I’ve ordered the Ron Rash. The other novelist (and short story writer) I’ve found really beautiful is Romesh Guneskera…

      1. Ah good, I read Reef years ago too. My husband read it only recently and loved it and so did a neighbour whom we recently provided with a copy! I’d recommend his short story collection Noontide Toll. The stories are linked by a narrator who is a van driver in Sri Lanka. Each story is drama revealing of history and the language is always clear and beautiful.

  3. The only one of those I have read is Talking to the Dead which I thought was brilliant. So evocative and beautifully written. I really like the sound of Before Everything, a poignant story.

    1. Talking to the Dead is my favourite Dunmore. Her descriptive writing is so vivid, isn’t it. It’s a few years since I read Before Everything but it’s stayed with me. So moving.

  4. May I recommend The Lost Garden By Helen Humphreys. It is set in England during WW2. Helen Humphreys is a Canadian poet and author. I am off to find other books by her as this one was beautiful.

    1. I’m not sure if this reply connects me to Davida Chazan? I haven’t read all of Ondaatje’s novels, although I found The English Patient exquisite. It contains perhaps my favourite opening eleven pages of all time. Romesh Gunesekera recommended Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost to me. Is it fair to say that Anil’s Ghost is the novel of Ondaatje’s most directly connected with Sri Lankan history? Cheers!

      1. Not a popular opinion, I think, but I’ve always thought the novel was so much better than the film. Beautiful to look at, for sure, but I think that obscured the book’s message.

  5. I agree with you very strongly on this point, Susan. I saw the film first and when at last I read the novel The English Patient I could not believe the degree to which it was a completely different animal!

  6. I’ve read 3 of your 5 today, and it was on your special recommendation that I acquired the Dunmore. I’ve read quite a lot of her poetry as well, and have enjoyed it. I’ve read a couple of others by Ron Rash but not that particular one, and had no idea he was a poet. The Harpy I’ll be reading for the Literary Wives book club next year.

  7. Ron Rash is a great choice for this category. Such a great writer with a strong sense of compassion and humanity for his characters. I’m also going to recommend Philip Larkin’s novel. Both are worth reading, but A Girl in Winter is my favourite – it’s well worth seeking out.

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