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The Poets' Wives
Cover of The Poets' Wives
The Poets' Wives
A Novel
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What does it mean to be a poet's wife, his muse and lover, there for the heights of inspiration and the quotidian of the day-to-day, and often times, too, the drudgery of being in a supporting role to "the great man." In this exquisite and sensitive new novel, David Park explores this complicated relationship, through three well-crafted characters, two based on actual women: Catherine Blake, wife of William Blake, 19th-century poet, painter, and engraver, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a transit camp en route to Siberia during Stalin's rule. Park has also fashioned a fictional contemporary poet, whose wife looks back on her husband's life during the days just after his death. All three women deal with their husband's fame or notoriety. All three stick by their mates, taking seriously their commitment to the men they married, but also to assisting with and preserving their work. And this despite infidelities, despite a singlemindedness at the expense of others, and despite hardship sometimes beyond comprehension. Set across continents and centuries, under wildly different circumstances, these three women exist as a testament to love, to relationship despite the odds, and to art. An amazingly insightful novel.

What does it mean to be a poet's wife, his muse and lover, there for the heights of inspiration and the quotidian of the day-to-day, and often times, too, the drudgery of being in a supporting role to "the great man." In this exquisite and sensitive new novel, David Park explores this complicated relationship, through three well-crafted characters, two based on actual women: Catherine Blake, wife of William Blake, 19th-century poet, painter, and engraver, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a transit camp en route to Siberia during Stalin's rule. Park has also fashioned a fictional contemporary poet, whose wife looks back on her husband's life during the days just after his death. All three women deal with their husband's fame or notoriety. All three stick by their mates, taking seriously their commitment to the men they married, but also to assisting with and preserving their work. And this despite infidelities, despite a singlemindedness at the expense of others, and despite hardship sometimes beyond comprehension. Set across continents and centuries, under wildly different circumstances, these three women exist as a testament to love, to relationship despite the odds, and to art. An amazingly insightful novel.

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About the Author-
  • David Park has written nine previous books including The Big Snow, Swallowing the Sun, The Truth Commissioner, The Light of Amsterdam, which was shortlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Prize, and, most recently, The Poets' Wives, which was selected as Belfast's Choice for One City One Book 2014. He has won the Authors' Club First Novel Award, the Bass Ireland Arts Award for Literature, the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award and the University of Ulster's McCrea Literary Award, three times. He has received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and been shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year Award three times. In 2014 he was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. He lives in County Down, Northern Ireland.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 11, 2013
    Park’s ninth book (after The Light of Amsterdam) is divided into three novella-like sections, each focusing on the wife of a poet. In the first section, William Blake’s wife Catherine laments her poverty and the woes of living with a brilliant man who isn’t granted the recognition he’s due. Set in Russia of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the second section tracks the harrowing, fear-filled life of Nadezhda Mandelstam after her husband, Osip, dies in a Soviet internment camp. On the move, Nadezhda commits Osip’s poems to memory in an effort to preserve them for future generations. The third section, which is the most intriguing and most plot-driven, focuses on Lydia, the fictional wife of a fictional Irish poet who demands that his family scatter his ashes after he dies. Lydia’s daughters offer their support, but try to understand why she stayed with such an adulterous and cold man. The first two sections are frustrating, and the use of present tense and skipping around in time detract from the power of the narrative and its sensory detail. Though offering a promising premise, this novel lacks depth and provides little payoff.

  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2014
    In parallel but unconnected narratives, Irish novelist Park (The Light of Amsterdam, 2012, etc.) portrays the inner lives of three women--two historic, one fictional--who have devoted themselves to their difficult husbands' creative needs and ambitions. The women's stories follow the same pattern of early passion evolving into long years of travail and sacrifice. Aging widow Catherine Blake remembers her life with prophetic poet William Blake: his yearlong courtship filled with letters she was too illiterate to read; their romantic early marriage; a miscarriage followed by the threat of Blake's passion for another woman (a not historically proven event); their three-year stay in Sussex, Blake inspired by seeing a tiger and a comet. Catherine revels in being William's student, his assistant and his succor against a public that thought him more madman than genius. Unlike Blake, Osip Mandelstam was recognized as a genius in his lifetime, but writing poetry in Stalinist Russia was a political act, and his words were considered inflammatory. In 1939, Osip's wife, Nadezhda, waits in line to send the exiled Osip a package before her story bounces forward and backward in time to earlier exiles and tribulations the couple shared and to the future in which Nadezhda must survive alone while preserving Osip's banned writing. Like Catherine Blake, the childless Nadezhda dedicates her life to supporting her husband's genius, acting as his scribe and suffering his infidelities as minor irritants. Fictional Lydia is the new widow of Don, a contemporary Irish poet who never achieved greatness before his fatal heart attack at their seaside cottage. Unhappily married for years, Lydia remains ambivalent toward Don as husband and poet. He was a womanizer and an uninvolved, resentful father to their son and two daughters. Now Lydia gathers with her adult daughters to spread Don's ashes and deal with the maternal grief she had never been able to articulate over her son, who died years before. The language is gorgeous, the tone exquisitely highbrow, but the result is disappointingly dull.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2014

    The wives of famous men have a hard time of it--especially, it seems, the wives of famous poets, who must not only cater to and cosset their husbands during their creative lives but maintain that loyalty beyond death. Such is the case for the wives of William Blake, Osip Mandelstam, and a third, fictitious Irish poet, featured here by three-time McCrea Literary Award winner Park. All three widows remain protective despite their husbands' various infidelities and persecutions. Catherine Blake, suffering from a miscarriage and jealous of the young street girl brought in to help her, endures Blake's depression, insecurities, and trial for treason. Nadezhda Mandelstam commits to memory Osip's entire oeuvre after his arrests and torture for counterrevolutionary writing in the Stalinist Soviet Union. As Lydia, the third wife and a recent widow, spends an evening awaiting the arrival of her daughters, she sifts through her husband's final poems, which reveal more about him than she cares to know. VERDICT Linked by their endurance and the determination to safeguard their husbands' legacies, these three women are as worthy of appreciation and admiration as their poet husbands. Strongly recommended.--Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    February 1, 2014
    They served as occasional muses and, more important, as keepers of their husbands' legacies. The wives of three poetsWilliam Blake, Osip Mandelstam, and a fictitious contemporary Irish poetmanaged home lives, handled finances (of little concern to the poets), and dealt, in one way or another, with the other women in their husbands' lives. Catherine Blake's marriage in the eighteenth century was altered and threatened after she miscarried, yet she tried to cosset William as he declined into madness. After Mandelstam was charged with counter revolutionary activity in twentieth-century Russia, his wife, Nadezhda, lived in fear and poverty, desperately committing his poetry to memory. Lydia, wife of a womanizing poet in present-day Ireland, has the consolation of two adult daughters to counter the earlier loss of her son as she contends with her husband's controlling manner from beyond the grave. While Park (Light of Amsterdam, 2012) focuses on these three wives committed to their marriages and their husbands' work, he also shows some of the inspiration that fuels the poetry. An insightful and moving exploration of love and art.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal on Amsterdam This is a novel about people, about feelings, thoughts, and struggles, and Park does an excellent job of developing the characters and making the reader care about them...a humane and touching read.
  • Boston Globe on Amsterdam Quietly moving . . . Park uncovers an essential sadness in each of these lost souls-a failure of courage or imagination that's all the sadder for being fully recognized and regretted-yet the book is surprisingly funny, too . . . Park's Belfast natives, and many readers, will return from Amsterdam subtly changed.
  • Booklist on Amsterdam A humane and deeply empathetic writer, Park turns the most ordinary of interactions into a moving story of people's greatest hopes and fears.
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