Picador, $22 pb, 293 pp, 0330363808
Dorothy Porter’s new verse novel, Wild Surmise, takes an almost classic form. The verse novel is now well-established as a modern genre, and Porter has stamped a distinctive signature and voice on the verse form, particularly with the phenomenal success of her racy, action-packed detective novel, The Monkey’s Mask (1994). So it comes as no surprise to find this book setting a similarly cracking pace across some not entirely unexpected territory: an adulterous love affair between two women; and the death, through cancer, of a husband. Additional glamour and some thematic variation are provided by the women’s profession, astronomy. Both women are favourites on the lecture and television circuit, and Alex Leefson’s passionate interest in finding traces of biological life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, generates some of the more purely lyrical moments.
One of the hardest things to achieve in the verse novel is a balance or, at least, an accommodation between two powerful and often rival impulses: one towards narrative, the other towards lyric. In the main, Porter manages this potential contradiction well, though, if the page-turning quality of this novel is anything to go by, it is arguable that narrative wins out in the end: these are poems that tend to lead you on to the next one, rather than inviting slow, or considered, rereading. At what point does the husband realise his wife’s infidelity? And when does the wife realise her husband’s mortality?