The Poet by Louisa Reid
A novel in verse is an unusual concept, but in this story of a painful, toxic relationship it works brilliantly in giving the narrator and main protagonist an individual and powerful voice. This is Emma’s story, an award winning poet whose voice has been silenced in a relationship which depends on her being moulded to the needs and purposes of a manipulative egotist. The style is brilliant because it suggests the sparing nature of her words as she has been forced into the background of her own life. There is space for what matters: her complex feelings about a man who has dominated her life and her dilemmas about how to find herself. After all, they both deal with words, she as a postgraduate student who has not worked on her doctorate for too long, him as a charming Oxford don who attracts attention if not adoration, who soaks her thoughts up like a sponge. It is a situation of power imbalance, where she was his undergraduate student unsure of her place in the University, and he was a married man who sought her out for his own reasons. Not that he revealed that he was married until she was in too deep, not that he really cares for the children he left behind. It has become a toxic relationship as he has reduced her self confidence until she is totally in his shadow, not earning her own money so she cannot claim a measure of independence. This is such a clever novel, ambitious, skilful and creating a total empathy with a clever and increasingly determined young woman.
I found that this book’s strength lies in its powerful use of words in blank verse, as they convey so much in an image, an admission like “Confidence is something I’ve learnt to fake” rather than a long description of how and why. It says how she felt that she surprised herself by getting into Oxford in the first place, how the interview process left her feeling bewildered and second rate in a few deft lines, comparing her naivety with the assurance of the other candidates. This imposter syndrome made her an easy target for a man who had strong views on the women on his course,charming them along with everything else, convincing them that he knew best, that in his attention they could find their true role. With Emma he recognised someone with a real flair for ideas, a flair that he used especially when she won a prize for her poetry collection. Since then, while she keeps his house going and responds to his every need, he has played down her writing and suggested that she take a break from her studies into Charlotte Mew, a not so well known Victorian poet. When he dismisses Emma’s work as derivative, she rips up her work even though “I miss those poems I destroyed”. He leaves her to look after his daughters on their regular visits, and seems to believe the occasional kind word or gesture will keep her in thrall.
It is when she discovers his greatest betrayal that she becomes determined to do more than carry on with low level anger and explodes into rage beyond words. It is then that this book became truly absorbing for me, as her intentions became complex. It is almost a thriller in how it demands to be read, with the pain becoming visible in every line.
This is a book that defied my expectations with its power and skilful style. This is angry verse, strong and powerful that I found compelling in the way that an ordinary prose narrative would; Emma’s voice is incredible in its realisation, its low level disappointment which turns to anger. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous book,and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a slightly unusual but incredibly strong read.