The Poet by Louisa Reid: tackles ‘problematic older man’ trope with nuance

Beautiful, biting page-turner may appeal to Meg Wolitzer fans

The Poet
The Poet
Author: Louisa Reid
ISBN-13: 9780857528391
Publisher: Doubleday
Guideline Price: £14.99

“Did feminism just pass you by?” Emma’s best friend wonders, witnessing the once-promising 25-year-old spending her days amid the drudge of domesticity instead of completing her doctoral thesis. Emma, as is almost obligatory for any clever young woman in a contemporary novel, is in love with a problematic older man, the charismatic Tom. Once her lecturer, he is now the lover whose underwear she washes and whose temper she soothes.

The Poet marks the first time Louisa Reid has written for adults, though the verse novel form is one she has used in her work for young adults. It is particularly apt for this tale given the overt subject matter – both Emma and the subject of her abandoned research are poets, women struggling to be heard – but also is the ideal form for the dizzying intensity of a fraught love affair (see also Sarah Crossan’s Here Is the Beehive).

There are sentences that could easily seem melodramatic without the breathing space line breaks and white space provide; at one stage Emma reflects,

"The list of people I'm letting down gets longer by the day
and starts and ends with
a dead poet
who would have killed to have the chances I waste."

The form allows for seamless motion between the more conversational tone of the “decidedly/ infra dig” narrator, uneasy amid the easy privilege of Oxford, and the many literary references woven throughout (Emma measures out her life in lies, rather than coffee spoons).

One of the more challenging aspects of exploring toxic relationships and coercive control for writers today is the awareness, aided by campaigning from domestic violence organisations, of how difficult it is to leave such situations. The balance between realism and narrative stagnation is calibrated skilfully here, with Reid letting us see Emma’s missteps and doubts as she follows in the footsteps of so many other bright, exploited women. The allure of brilliance covers a multitude of sins.

This beautiful, biting page-turner may particularly appeal to those who admired Meg Wolitzer’s superb The Wife and may wonder: is it any different for young women, these days? Reid’s novel provides – as the best fiction does – a nuanced, thought-provoking answer to this question.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature