Publisher: Fourth Estate
Cover Image: Hal Morey/Getty Images
Content Warnings: Violent imagery; cheating in a relationship
Having not read a great deal of prose poetry in the past, I was utterly intrigued by the concept, especially when I read the synopsis. I thought it might be reminiscent of the way Percy Bysshe Shelley met Mary Shelley and subsequently left his wife to pursue a life with her. However, this was almost painful to read – watching the character that is a mirror image of Elizabeth Smart herself wait for the man she is having an affair with is melancholia brought to life. My initial impression was that the writing was beautiful, descriptive in nature, using water and birth as metaphors for the directions her relationship with George Barker took. This opinion changed as I delved further into the book though, when everything became a little too layered, and Smart got tangled in a web of her own passion.
Had the book been about any other topic than her all encompassing love for a man who clearly doesn’t love anyone but himself, then perhaps I would have been enraptured, but as it is, I am feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Smart spends half the book criticising the woman Barker stays with, which seems a little irrational considering she is the one attempting to conspire in the destruction of a marriage. The entire time I was reading, I felt like shouting at young Elizabeth for being so gullible and accepting her fate of bearing the children of a man who wanted to have his cake and eat it – the burning love she describes feeling really felt like it ought to be requited, but by someone else who deserved it.
The metaphors eventually became more layered than an onion, making it increasingly difficult to work through – I had to stop and reread a few sentences. These convoluted turns of phrase felt unnecessary, and as though Smart was trying to persuade the reader she loved Barker more than his wife did. It felt like a creative writing exercise rather than a piece of literature intended to be published, and that is where it really lets itself down. Being based on Smart’s personal experiences, it should have felt more raw and relatable, but instead it felt too flowery and romantic, with Smart making too many excuses for both her, and Barker’s apprehensible behaviour.
This book does nothing for women’s empowerment, as it essentially chronicles a man pitting two women against each other, causing them both to doubt themselves and hate the other. This is incredibly unfair to both women, and had there been any justice in the world, they both would have told Barker to get lost and supported each other in getting away from him. No man is ever worth this level of emotional stress and it hurt my soul to read about. I implore the readers of this review to never settle for a Barker.
One aspect of the book I did appreciate is the commentary surrounding affairs and how it seems the woman is always blamed, despite it taking two to tango. This is something I’ve noticed in reality, with openly sexual women being slut shamed and judged whilst their male counterpart gets away scot free or is even praised for having relations with more than one woman at a time. The double standards are unreal and this book does address them to a certain extent. However, it does also spend one hundred and thirty four pages saying what it could have said in half the amount, so I’m not sure I would recommend it as being worth reading overall.
If you’re interested in the lives of real people, especially literary people, then you may want to give this a go. Bear in mind though, that it may take longer than you expect to read given the overly flowery language and excessive use of metaphor.