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Book Review: The World’s Wife

world's wife cover

Sunday 25th January is Burns Night, when Scottish people drink whiskey, eat haggis, and celebrate the work of poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. Many of Burns’ poems are written in the Scots language or Scots dialect (much like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting!) and can be difficult to read in another accent! Instead, we are reviewing The World’s Wife, by famous Scot Carol Ann Duffy.

30 women feature in The World’s Wife (BOOK ZONE 821.91 DUF) Some are married to ancient heroes, some to fictional creatures like the fairytale Beast, and others to famous men like Charles Darwin and Shakespeare. One is Elvis’ twin, and the Kray Sisters are based on infamous brothers Ronnie and Reggie. Some like Little Red Cap, Circe and Medusa are famous in their own right, for tricking, killing or maiming famous men! Many of the poems are set in the modern day- Mrs Midas tries to keep her cursed husband away from the phone and the cat. When Faust makes a deal with the devil, his wife adopts his hedonistic lifestyle, eventually using their wealth to buy a new kidney! Sometimes Duffy sticks to her source material and sets her poems in Ancient Greece or Biblical Egypt, but these stories are told by modern women, unafraid to swear or reference sex or childbirth. Eurydice sums it up when she says “the Gods are like publishers, usually male”- we have heard of these women, but not in their own words. Mrs Darwin takes the credit for her husband’s discovery and Frau Freud disproves her husband’s famous theory. Some of the women commit their famous acts (Medusa turning Greeks to stone, Circe turning them to pigs) because they’ve been mistreated, and hardly feel guilty. The Devil’s wife and Thetis (mother of the warrior Achilles) have been forced to adapt to survive and now grow angry at what they’ve become. Elvis’ sister provides the clearest metaphor- while her brother has become famous around the world for his explicit dancing, she has been sent to a convent, and made a life for herself amongst other women.


All the poems in The World’s Wife are around two pages long, and techniques like rhyming to make them easy to read. Thetis’ poem is one of the catchiest: “Next I was roar, claw, fifty pound paw, jungle-floored, meateater, raw, a zebra’s gore in my lower jaw”. Like all the best stories, a simple plot masks a complex issue or frightening truth, and simple language helps ensure that Duffy’s poems reach as many women as possible. Chances are you know the “real” Aesop, Quasimodo, or Herod- it’s time to read the untold stories for yourself.

If you liked The World’s Wife, try these:

King Kong, the deluxe extended edition (DVD LOBBY 791.43) is Peter Jackson’s remake of the famous 1933 film. Naomi Watts plays Anne Darrow, an actress who goes to Skull Island to star in a film as a tropical princess. Andy Serkis plays the giant gorilla via motion-capture and is equally loving and scary. One of the greatest ‘beauty and the beast’ stories ever!

king kong

Listen to The World’s Wife on CD (BOOK ZONE 821.91) read by the author herself, or watch one of the many stage adaptations on YouTube. Mephisto Theatre’s interpretation of Little Red Cap is particularly good- just search for “The World’s Wife”.

Hollie McNish is a feminist poet who often performs at local venues like Norwich Arts Centre. Her poems about cupcakes and Nicki Minaj confront stereotypes and make you laugh (sometimes to keep from crying!) Read some of her work here


The World’s Wife includes references to sex and violence against women- for this reason we recommend it to older readers.


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