The Professor of Poetry (4 July 2013) by Grace McCleen
Marking a significant departure from her debut, The Land of Decoration - magical realism written from the point of view of a child - Grace McCleen's sophomore novel is a campus-set story of love, repression and regret, with an introverted fiftysomething academic as its protagonist. Elizabeth Stone is a respected professor of English who has recently been given the all-clear after undergoing treatment for a brain tumour. She is not, however, the 'professor of poetry' of the title: this phrase refers to one of her university tutors, Edward Hunt, who still teaches at the university she attended. When Professor Stone starts work on a new book, her research takes her back to the city she studied in, a unnamed place often referred to simply as the 'city of books', which resembles both Oxford and Cambridge. There she rekindles her friendship with Hunt, but the resurrection of their relationship after decades of silence brings unspoken emotions back to the surface.
Elizabeth herself is a complicated protagonist who is sometimes hard to like. Although she is very closed off, even to herself - having denied her own feelings and desires for much of her adult life - she is also unpredictable. I started off assuming I would relate to this character, then I came up against the brick wall of her repression, self-denial and enforced lack of emotion; then there was one point in particular when I thought the plot was going to take a very different turn and make Elizabeth into a sinister figure with secret perversions; then we meet her younger self, full of bizarre fervour and self-flagellation. She can be unexpectedly dismissive of female poets and literary figures; at other times I was furious at her refusal to admit and confront her own feelings, despite her age and experience, despite her intelligence. In a narrative that moves back and forth at random, the reader learns of Elizabeth's childhood - an intense affair, related in dreamlike passages, involving an isolated house by the sea, an unstable mother and, later, austere foster parents - and her arrival at university: her obsessive idolatry of Professor Hunt and all-consuming devotion to the creation of a 'masterpiece' that will validate his belief in her. The character's loneliness and lack of fulfilment make her story sometimes difficult to read, and in many ways this is a very sad novel. By the end, however, it becomes heartbreaking in the right kind of way: poignant and moving.
As befits its themes of poetry, literature and academia, The Professor of Poetry is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in some time. It is suitably lyrical, does beautiful things with the English language, and is undoubtedly a literary novel, in spite of the flowery cover and what seems to be a lightweight premise. In fact, I was surprised by just how literary this story was - it's as much, if not more, about ideas and language as it is about people and relationships. One of my recrurring bugbears with literary fiction - the extent to which characters' inability to just talk about things hinders their progression in life, not just in the short term but over tens of years - is present and correct, but it's a huge compliment to McCleen to say that I didn't have any problem with that here, even as it made my heart ache for the characters. The book also earns points for being a romance which I, a romance-phobic (in terms of books, not life), loved. By the end chapters, I was in tears.
I've read mixed reviews of this book in the press, and to an extent I can understand why The Professor of Poetry might attract criticism. The plot is not believable at all, really; a literal lifetime of misery could have been avoided had the protagonists had one simple conversation in their youth; there are contrived touches; it is, essentially, a romance, albeit a beautifully written and constructed one. However, I don't think any of these minor points really had much of an impact on the overall majesty of it as a piece, and indeed many of the same things could be said about a great number of lauded literary novels. And - inevitable question, I know, but still - would it be so susceptible to accusations of sentimentality had it been written by a man?
The Professor of Poetry is a quiet book with hidden depths: given the fact that I couldn't get into The Land of Decoration, I was surprised by how captivating I found this one. It isn't a compulsive page-turner, more a deceptively gentle and deeply beautiful story which draws you in more thoroughly than you realise. If you're in the mood for a thoughtful read with both intelligence and heart - and a little bit of strangeness - then this is the book for you.
Rating: 8/10 | My full review on Goodreads | Buy on Amazon: Kindle