Writ in Water by James Sulzer


It has been a long time since I have read the poetry of Keats and I have to thank James Sulzer for bringing him into my consciousness again in this learned literary novel.

Writ in Water is original in the way that it is structured. The author has chosen to juxtapose two narratives: one, the reflections of Keats on his short life and the other, the viewpoint of a mysterious spirit, the identity of which becomes clear during the course of the novel. Sulzer switches between the different perspectives, the spirit being an observer of Keats as he relives decisions that he made, memories that he has, regrets that he harbours as he hovers in a metaphysical pocket between this world and the next after his death in Rome.

The book reads like you are observing a series of visions, dipping in and out of reminiscences, all of which have served to shape the poet and influence his life and the narrative has an ethereal quality to it, which equates with the idea that it is Keats’ troubled essence, which is guiding the book’s thread.

The idea of the spirit is ambitious, as a detached commentator on Keats’ agonies and I liked the incorporation of bird imagery and comparisons in the parts where the spirit narrates, lightly feathering the text.

Sulzer’s book is an imaginative dreamlike odyssey that puzzled me at first and I’m not wholly certain that the way that the book is constructed allows it to flow.

However, there is much that I loved about this book like the scenes that the author creates of Keats’ life, bringing alive his relationships with family, Fanny Brawne and his contemporaries with such poise, knowledge and crisp dialogue that they ring true.  His knowledge of Keats’ life is exemplary and shows a clear love for the poet and his works and this is one of the things that I will take away from this book. I loved Sulzer’s writing style as it is clear in its purpose, his crafting of sentences is measured and confident and his phrases are full of imagery. His interpretation of Keats’ voice, for me, is right.

The book ends well with an appropriate conclusion, effectively seeking a resolution for the poet to enable his transcendence.

All in all, for me, the structure of the narrative was too dominant; however, Sulzer’s words are beautifully written within that.

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery where I was privileged to read it as an ARC.

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