Let me begin by making it clear what The Golden Gate, the new “novel in verse” by Vikram Seth, is not. It isn’t poetry: it doesn’t have (or attempt to have) the requisite depth or density; it isn’t rich in metaphor or other poetic devices; to examine it alongside a contemporary book-length narrative poem like Alfred Corn’s Notes from a Child of Paradise is to recognize that the two works are so utterly different in kind as to make comparison pointless. Nor is The Golden Gate a great novel: there can be little doubt but that, had it been written in prose, its characters would have come across as rather insignificant, its plot as less than compelling.

What this book is, however, is an extraordinarily accomplished work of narrative verse—one that has all the cardinal virtues of the genre, and has them in abundance. It’s...


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