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The Death of the Poet by N Quentin Woolf, book review: War story only adds dead weight to a daring debut

 

Themes of violence, despair and the limits of human responsibility churn through N Quentin Woolf's debut novel, the sizeable The Death of the Poet, right from the start. We've barely met the protagonist, a no-bullshit California talk-radio DJ called John Knox, before he's getting royally punched by one of his guests, the spiky historian Rachel McAllistair. Shortly after that he's falling irrecoverably in love with her, though like any self-respecting femme fatale she makes sure to warn him off – "I'm damaged goods," she says – before letting down her guard.

It's tricky knowing how to deal with Rachel as a character. Woolf works hard to make her more than one-dimensional, more than just another Betty Blue, but still she walks and talks on the page like any other crazy/beautiful cliché, alternately tender and violent, to John and herself, and seemingly crying out to be "saved". "I promise I'm going to fix this," John tells her. "I'm gonna put this back together for you."

It isn't just surface. Rachel has bi-polar disorder, or something like it, that no manner of therapy or medication can remediate or calm. She cuts herself, and people think he did it. She beats him up, even throwing a frying pan of hot oil in his face, and he lies about it. They have a child together, and things take on a new edge – what if she takes out her rage on the baby? But still she seems largely there so that John can drive to the coast and look ruggedly out at the ocean. The Death of the Poet is a big book, and paints its story on a large canvas, but a lot of it reads like self-pity – it doesn't help that it's narrated by John as if addressing his lost love – and that, more than any amount of hard knocks, is hard to take.

The book's title comes from a second strand that first appears a third of the way in. This is a series of diary entries written by a British officer in the First World War, who commanded a Rupert Brooke-style writer who died on the field of battle. For a long time the relevance of this pastiche material to John and Rachel's story is unclear. Even when the links do emerge I'm afraid to say it adds little to the novel, except length. And at more than 400 pages, and with really only the dynamics of one brutal and self-destructive relationship to power the reader onwards, the extra matter is dead weight, rather than the thematic prism surely intended.

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