The premise for Northern Irish writer David Park's latest novel is a psychologically fascinating one:
what must it be like to be a literary handmaiden, to be the partner of a writer but not a writer yourself, entrusted with the words of another after they have gone? And the more personally troublesome the writer, the more intriguing the question. "Why did she put up with him?" asked one biographer of Simone de Beauvoir about her life with Jean-Paul Sartre. Why, indeed.
Park's novel is more about the how, though, than the why. Inevitably, as the title suggests, the poets in this volume are male and the partners are female; Catherine Blake tells us first about her life with husband William; then we hear from Nadia Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip; and finally a fictional wife's voice, but in many ways more real than either of them, speaks of years of betrayal and the legacy that her Northern Irish husband, newly dead, has bequeathed her.
The importance of the non- writing partner who is left to carry the flame is still to be fully examined. Academics and biographers have tended to care less for the woman in the kitchen, bearing the children, typing up the handwritten notes, than they have for the glamour of the sometimes wild-living scribe of innermost thoughts. That is where truth and beauty really lie, we all believe, as we cherish favourite poems, recall favourite stories. And yet, as Park's last widow so poignantly reflects: "The poems that were truest worried her most because she couldn't bring herself to understand how such perfect truth could spring from someone who was so frequently false."
William Blake isn't so much false as blind: blind to the truth of his younger wife's miscarriage which tells her she will never bear him a child; blind to the interloper, the young prostitute he rescues from penury and has installed in their home as a servant, and who is doing their marriage such damage. The words of his most famous poems infiltrate Catherine's thoughts so much that she seems almost a reflection of his work. This is a theme that runs through all three women's narratives, as they struggle to retain some sense of self under the weight of their more famous, more artistic companions.
This section is, for me, though, the least successful, partly because Park has chosen to render Catherine's perhaps less educated voice as a series of "ands", leading to breathlessly interminable sentences that chatter on and on. It is almost a relief to come to the solidity of Nadia Mandelstam - I say "almost" because hers is surely the most gruelling narrative, hers the most onerous role.
Mandelstam had the misfortune to come to prominence during Stalin's regime, and although his one poem denouncing Stalin wasn't written down, the recitation he gave to a few close friends was enough to have him hauled off to a labour camp, where he died. Nadia was charged with remembering his every poem; she couldn't write them down for fear of arrest too.
Park is excellent here on the suffering of the times and the fear that pervades everything, but he is lighter on the difficulties within the Mandelstam marriage. Mandelstam himself was unfaithful and extremely controlling, and Nadia's loyalty to him often seems less like love and more like a crushed woman's lack of options. Park nods towards this aspect of the man, but it's told rather than shown. Her own frustration with her husband's seeming naivety, whether he fully comprehends the damage that words can do, does however control the narrative.
Yet both Catherine's and Nadia's views of their husbands and their own roles are extremely romantic ones. In contrast, Lydia, the final poet's wife, has had such romance squeezed out of her. Her late husband was never one of the "top-ranking" poets, we learn; perhaps his lack of success caused the repeated infidelities and the final betrayal, a series of love poems dedicated to a long-term mistress. Her voice is angry without being bitter. What she regrets most is that the death of their only son has been captured by her husband in his words, not hers: "...already writing in one of the black Moleskine notebooks that he always carried with him. Already writing his loss and his pain for the world to read. Who would read hers?"
Writers appropriate others' life stories for themselves, and writers' companions must attend to that appropriation, knowing that their life story is being appropriated too. Park tries to give three women their voices back; it is in the final section that he truly does that, in a superb act of defiance, dignity and truth.