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.