Monday, 2 June 2014

Book Review - The Death of the Poet - N. Quentin Woolf

Must be something in the surname. A sense of spirited experimentation but without compromising either characterisation, narrative or the beauty of language. This is a powerful story, one that includes all of the former ingredients and then some.It should be remembered at this point that this is a debut novel and not, having read the thing before putting it back on the bookshelf with a contented sigh, the award-winning third. No, this is the award contending first.

'The Death of the Poet' intrigued me from the very first sentence. It was like hearing Bowie's 'Space Oddity' for the first time - a freeze frame frozen moment of expectant pleasure. Everything is a countdown. Book One starts as Nine, the following Eight and so on. The same goes for the chapter numbers - 078 down to the final 1. But this is no mere confection, no window dressing to tart-up a poor tale. This is part and parcel of the same thing. It adds to the overall sense of drama  - a taught wire strung in reverse.

Within eighteen pages (and counting) after that spellbinding opening chapter with, someone as then still unknown, being blown up. I soon became aware that this was no ordinary novel. Emotional intensity, not the ladled on infusion as used by one American writer,  a flawed, fractured, fractious central protagonist. The sudden death of a father followed by that explosive first meeting with Rachel.

Ah, Rachel. The source of the love interest, the serpent in her own bosom, Rachel. Rachel whose first physical contact with John Knox (our man) is a punch in his face.

If this book is anyone single thing then it is a dark romance. But it isn't anyone single thing, it is two, two strains of a story that bleed into one along with the blood of domestic violence.

It is more than that, though. It is an examination, forensic in detail, in the depth of how a love, a little one sided perhaps, can skid into something else, something cloying, transgressive, consuming, obsessive and ultimately destructive. 

Reading those first few pages was akin to hearing 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' Meaty riffs and power chords hold in silence by a tension fit to burst a blood vessel.

And somewhere a clock is ticking backward.

N. Quentin Woolf writes a love story that is sinister, crawling with a decaying mind, featuring a love of thralldom, of utter and complete loyalty, a loyalty so total it will accept any and every form of violence, accept it and take the blame for every violation of it. The novel contains rich characterization. The preacher and his war-torn son the Iraq veteran whose days are numbered, Steinwietz the old family friend. Real as real. 

John Knox is a DJ whose show is attracting a growing audience. Rachel is a professor of English. Theirs is a fractious relationship.

The palette Woolf uses to colour the story is a mix of Pollock and Bacon. Rachel is a form of violent splashes across a grotesque portrait, a contusion of shades and hues. Bruises self-inflicted sometimes, damage done as much by nurture as by nature.  John Knox looks like Kurt Cobain  but is a collage by Lee Kwo.

Rachel's violent outbursts, her traumatized personality grow worse as the story progresses. On one occasion, following yet another raging argument, she goes into the garden where she repeatedly bangs her foot down onto a rake so that it can smash time and again into her face. The consequence of which sees the press catch the couple on their doorstep with Rachel bruised and bloodied. The press then grows headlines the way gardens grow weeds and suddenly Jon Knox is a wife beater. It is a thing he does not deny preferring to protect Rachel. It is the most singularly brave but stupid thing he could do. The slow descent into the chaos and loneliness of mental health issues is both terrifying and grim. The cause and effect seeing both John and son Josh damaged by their association with Rachel. 

There follows a protracted peace as Rachel takes leave to go to London to teach. When she returns another row, more explosive than any other erupts. This time, her violence brings with it a savage and life changing act. One that leaves John Knox a different man. Rachel attacks John with a frying pan filled with boiling oil. She smacks the pan against John's face the consequence of which leaves the right side John's face permanently scarred and one eye blind. 

Switch. 1914

France. World War 1. The frontline. John Rutherford, middle class, and very English, a Captain in the Kings Army leads his men over the top. A shell explodes near him shredding his life into grotesque fragments. His left ear, eye, and lower jaw are destroyed. Part of his face has gone, the left half. All that remains of the damaged side is a few teeth preventing his lolling tongue from falling out. John Rutherford life is turned on its head. 

The sudden time change seems odd at first, It is brief, an interlude almost but one which somehow throws you a curve ball as much as it does change the pace.  Two lives have been destroyed both by inexcusable acts of violence.

Switch. 2005

The slide from sanity into the dark realms of Bedlam are incremental. Rachel is obviously bi-polar. Her condition is not her fault but John's silence helps her not one bit.

The story portrays not only Rachel's unbalanced mind but also the effects her actions have on John and their son Josh. Then Rachel commits the worst crime of all. This one act drives John over the brink where he falls into a dark abyss where he contemplates murder. Then he discovers the journals that Rachel had been reading in secret, the journals of Captain John Rutherford soldier of the Great War.

This is a tale of love in all its bleakest, obsessive moments. Here is seen a love so utterly right and so completely wrong that such terms seem redundant. It is also a tale of war, of how man has waged again and again and even in the face of one of the most terrible wars ever seen still continues to fight sending our boys to kill and die in horrible and unnecessary ways. 

This, not just a good debut, it is a good book that deserves to win an award. The final few pages had me in tears. Read it.

 Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


Aurora Hylton said...

This sounds like my kind of book. I'll have to put it on my list. I fear I was something of a Rachel during my first marriage and with my ill-advised trysts between marriages. I have borderline personality disorder, which means a tendency to jealousy and becoming very upset, sometimes with no reason at all.
When it became apparent that the man who is now my second husband and I were getting serious, I got some serious counseling. My husband is a wonderful, sedate, kind and understanding Norwegian man. I didn't want to put him through the wringer with my tendency to jealousy. He's a good catch--I wanted to be the one to keep him! So, while the tendencies to jealousy and insecurity are still there, I now voice them calmly rather than screaming and throwing things.
I love how you find these wonderful things that I'd never have heard of otherwise!

Russell Duffy said...

Thanks Aurora for such kind words. I have only ever had a glimmer, a small glimpse of what you must go through on a regular basis. This character, Rachel, is not a bad person although her actions are. It really is a terrfic book.

Vanessa V Kilmer said...

Your review has me adding this book to my reading list. Very intriguing.

Russell Duffy said...

Hi Nessa. I hope you enjoy it.

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