N. Quentin Woolf’s debut novel combines playful and at times humorous language with a morose and transfixing storyline. Spanning trauma from warring countries to warring relationships, The Death Of The Poet explores the burdens of love and guilt. The novel centres on John Knox, a successful, loud-mouthed radio talk-show host in 90’s LA. When a political debate leads to a punch in the face from Rachel McAllister, one of his guests, rather than running away Knox falls irrevocably in love, promising to stay with her even though she claims she is “damaged goods.”
The archetypal femme-fatale character of Rachel is potentially one-dimensional; the undisclosed illness which makes her alternate from gentle to violent in a matter of pages is akin to many other writings of mental health. Nevertheless, Woolf delivers a realistic examination and portrayal of a lack of understanding and ability to cope through her relationship with Knox, and Rachel is used as a springboard for the exploration of futile love, domestic violence and being a man in the modern world.
The novels title reveals itself through the diary of John Rutherford, a First World War veteran describing the delineation of life in the early 20th Century. The diaries reveal that Rutherford commanded a poet who died at the frontline and deal with his overwhelming guilt of the death, as well as his own disfiguration. The unexpected connection of the two John’s unwinds as Knox’s life spirals into chaos, creating a complex story of violence, inertia and infatuation spanned across a century.
However, The Death of the Poet does have drawbacks, Woolf’s attempt to incorporate all his themes, such as love, domestic violence, disfiguration, gay rights, the war , etc., although interesting mean that at times the reader becomes lost in the thematic prisms, rather than concentrating on the journey of the characters. Perhaps a more focused articulation of the connection between the two men rather than a juggling of themes would have better expressed the novel’s overall meaning.
The protagonists therefore become agents of the novel rather than its core. Nevertheless, Woolf’s first novel expertly conveys the limits of human responsibility and forgiveness that are often concealed in male characters. The symbiosis of Rutherford and Knox develops throughout, yet still remains clandestine and concealed until the final chapter, allowing for the reader to be ever intrigued – regardless of the novels 400 pages.