Set in pre-war London, The Wasteland is a gripping fictionalization of the suffocating life and tempestuous marriage of T. S. Eliot. In denial of his deeper sexuality, the poet marries Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an emotionally imbalanced young woman suffering from increasing substance abuse issues and bouts of psychosis. But his love interest in Jack, a former co-worker, continues to rule him, and the resulting love triangle becomes a torment to all involved. Some other key characters are historical, such as Bertrand Russell, who attempts to support the couple emotionally and financially with limited success. Other players are imaginary, and like J. Alfred Prufrock, derive from Eliot’s more famous poems; including characters from his “bawdy” series, such as King and Queen Bolo and Columbo.
Tom and Jack’s arrest under the draconian British Buggery Act bring the oppressive danger of LGBTQ life in England during the era into sharp focus. Indeed, the generally surreal nature of prewar Europe blends with the personal imaginings of the characters, at times conflating the processes of creativity and psychosis.
The style is self-consciously poetic, presumably in homage to Eliot himself, and at times borders on self-indulgence. But when contrasted with the plaintive realism of its subject matter, it works. A readable and compelling novel that will be of most interest to readers who already know Eliot’s work.