A novel in sonnets: Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

This is the best book I have read all year, if not for longer.

It isn’t in our usual genres, it’s a mimetic novel about some people in San Francisco in 1980, working in defense software, falling in love, falling out of love, sculpting, driving, dating, having conversations about TinTin, having kids, dying, coping with death, getting married, having parties, having social anxiety, protesting about nuclear proliferation—you know, the kinds of things people do. But in The Golden Gate, they do it all in awesome tetrameter sonnets.

This could be a gimmick, but it isn’t at all. The poetry is wonderful. If you like words, and if you like words put together well, if you find that satisfying, then this is a feast. And it really is a novel, full of characters and plot. Indeed, the only thing wrong with this book is that the whole time I was reading it—twice in the same week—I kept wanting to read bits of it aloud to the people around me. No, my other complaint is that it made me laugh aloud several times in public, and it made me cry just as I needed to get onto a train.

Before I read it, I couldn’t really get my head around the fact that it really is a novel and not a book of poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy reading poetry collections. But I was expecting a set of poems that added up to a novel in your head sideways, not something like this. It’s hard to quote selectively because, like most novels, you need to know the characters. The characters are memorable complex people. But look at this, which I think gives the flavour and stands alone:

John looks downwards, as if admonished,
Then slowly lifts his head, and sighs.
Half fearfully and half astonished,
They look into each other’s eyes.
The waiter, bearded, burly, macho,
Says, “Madam, though it’s cold, gazpacho
Is what I’d recommend. Noisettes
Of lamp, perhaps, or mignoninettes
Of veal to follow….” Unavailing
Are his suggestions. Nothing sinks
Into their ears. “Ah, well,” he thinks,
“They’re moonstruck. It’ll be plain sailing.
Lovers, despite delays and slips
And rotten service, leave large tips.”

Sometimes a conversation will flow across sonnet after sonnet. There’s one point where there’s a speech at a rally that does this. One reason I read it again so quickly was that I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just that I was swept away with the virtuosity of the thing, I wanted to see that it really did hold together novelistically even when you know the plot. It does. Another reason I re-read it right away was that I loved the process of reading it so much I wanted more. And then also I wanted to tell all of you about it.

If you are the kind of person who hates poetry, don’t bother. I understand that. I can’t get with comics. But if you read the sonnet above and enjoyed it, and if you can face the thought of a book about some geeky but non-fantastical people in San Francisco and the Bay area in 1980, then this is a treat waiting for you. As well as being beautiful, it’s a good story—it would be a good story in prose. It may also be worth noting that there are people of varied ethnicities and sexual orientations in a way that more closely resembles real life than most novels purporting to be realistic.

But if you think writing a whole complex novel in verse is an odd thing to do, you’re not the only one.

An editor at a plush party
(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)
Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook
Where my Tibetan travel book
Was honored – seized my arm: “Dear fellow,
What’s your next work?” “A novel…” “Great!
We hope that you, dear Mr Seth – ”
“In verse”, I added. He turned yellow.
“How marvelously quaint,” he said,
And subsequently cut me dead.

There are books I admire, and books I enjoy, and sometimes there are books I want to hug and share with all my friends. This is one of the latter kind. I like Seth’s novels in prose a great deal, but I just adore this.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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