This has been a good year for Belfast readers: a new book by Glenn Patterson and a debut novel by Sophie Hillan, and now a new novel by the old master himself – and it's a cracker.
The Poets' Wives is David Park's ninth book. Having written sensitively about the Troubles in his native city in Swallowing the Sun, and explored the complexities of post-conflict reconciliation, The Truth Commissioner, he now moves largely off his own patch and out of his own century to examine the complexities displayed in the lives of three poets and the women yoked to them by marriage.
The book is constructed of three novellas which have recurrent themes, and in each, the perceptive reader will find echoes and resonances of the others.
The common theme is the wife as the slave of the lamp to her husband's poetry, which Park examines three-dimensionally, as Monet scrutinised Rouen Cathedral in different lights and from different angles.
The three poets are William Blake, the great poet, painter, engraver and mystic of late-18th and early-19th century England, Osip Mandelstam, the authentic voice of dissent in Stalin's Russia, and Don, otherwise unidentified, a minor poet in contemporary Northern Ireland, who does not quite make it into the top tier. The wives tell their own tales, separately – Catherine Blake, Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda and Lydia, Don's widow.
Catherine tells her story in the first person and a continuous present tense, flicking backwards and forwards in time, but providing a graphic re-imagining of the domestic life of the great poet – regarded as mad by his contemporaries and lunatic by his neighbours.
A country girl from Battersea able only to put her mark on the marriage register, she is taught by him to write, to read his poems and to colour his engravings. She also learns to live with the spirit figures who wander in and out unseen, and with whom her husband engages in animated conversation in a house where the barrier between the real and the spirit world is entirely permeable.
She learns to accommodate a bizarre lifestyle in which husband and wife site naked in a vine-covered garden shed reading Paradise Lost, and invite a casual caller to join them in the nude. Sexual relations are blighted by the stillbirth of a little girl, Eve, who remains a constant presence in the narrative.
Nevertheless, Catherine is the practical Martha who manages the frugal finances, sustains him through disappointment and rejection and, through a trial for sedition on a trumped-up charge, in constant awe of his powers, and after his death, waiting for him to take her to join him and Eve in the other world.
Nadzehda Mandelstam has already told her own story memorably in Hope Against Hope, which David Park generously acknowledges, but this does not invalidate powerful evocation of the suffocating effect of state censorship, of life in a police state where neighbour betrays neighbour and sibling informs on sibling, where everybody is a potential enemy, where trust shrivels and dies and human life is devalued.
Mandelstam, having been denounced by a close friend and disowned by his fellow writers, dies in a transit camp in Siberia, leaving his wife to preserve his poems by committing them to memory against the day when publication may become possible, and including, as part of the canon, love poems written to another woman. This involved for her a life under the radar, moving far from Moscow, teaching English and avoiding company.
Telling Lydia's story, Park is on home ground (and it shows) and in his own time – the only irony being that in a land populated by poets, Don is a minor figure, insignificant compared with Blake and Mandelstam, overrated by himself, jealous of his betters and over-praised by the claque.
It opens with Lydia, required by Don's will to consign his ashes to the sea, reminiscing with her daughters about his sneering cruelty and his many infidelities; her role as family breadwinner while he pursued his art and impressionable young women.
Here, too, there is the ghostly presence of her beloved son, killed in a climbing accident and buried in Morocco, and poems discovered to another woman which must be preserved in deference to art and the artist with whom she had stayed because of the poetry, while he interpreted poetic license a recipe for betrayal and self-indulgence.
Each of the novellas could stand on its own, with Lydia's story the most impressive; the characters of herself and her daughters the most fully realised. But the book is more than that. There are connecting themes – two poets and a bit, three good women, content to sacrifice themselves to the service of their husbands and the art of poetry, two having lost dear children, and all through a sense of the afterlife, with characters slipping in and out of the otherworld and a pervading sense of the numinous. There is also a serious examination of the complexity of human relations, of the relationship between art and life, between the singer and the song, a search for truth and an assertion of the role of the poet in speaking truth to power, invoking the rights of the individual and indicating the ultimate power of the word.
Park's words, too, and the way he marshals them, are a constant delight – a clear, limpid, uncluttered prose that verges at times on the poetic, in which the author does not obtrude himself as the characters reveal themselves and their story. The tendency to flit from time present to time past and back again makes it difficult at times to establish which time zone the narrative is in, and may tax the patience of some readers.
However, the best books require serious consideration by the reader, and close reading, too. For the others, there is always Mills & Boon.
The Poets' Wives by David Park (Bloomsbury, £16.99)