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The Professor of Poetry

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A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered. Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a master A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered. Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a masterpiece that centres on a poem given to her when she was eighteen by the elusive Professor Hunt... But as the days pass in the city she loves and her friendship with Professor Hunt is rekindled, her memories return her to a time shadowed by loneliness, longing and quiet despair, and to an undeclared but overwhelming love. Paralysed by the fear of writing something worthless, haunted by a sense of waste, Elizabeth Stone comes to realise she is facing the biggest test of her life. As in her acclaimed debut The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen gives an intense evocation of place, an unflinching portrayal of a character by turns comic, absurd, and disturbing, and a powerful sense of the transcendent within the ordinary. Profound and hypnotic, The Professor of Poetry devastates even as it exhilarates and echoes long after it has been closed.


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A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered. Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a master A poem wrapped in brown paper. A man, a woman, a city, and a past that must not be remembered. Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic, has a new lease on life. In remission from cancer, she returns to the city where she was a student over thirty years ago to investigate some little-known papers by T. S. Eliot, which she believes contain the seeds of her masterpiece; a masterpiece that centres on a poem given to her when she was eighteen by the elusive Professor Hunt... But as the days pass in the city she loves and her friendship with Professor Hunt is rekindled, her memories return her to a time shadowed by loneliness, longing and quiet despair, and to an undeclared but overwhelming love. Paralysed by the fear of writing something worthless, haunted by a sense of waste, Elizabeth Stone comes to realise she is facing the biggest test of her life. As in her acclaimed debut The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen gives an intense evocation of place, an unflinching portrayal of a character by turns comic, absurd, and disturbing, and a powerful sense of the transcendent within the ordinary. Profound and hypnotic, The Professor of Poetry devastates even as it exhilarates and echoes long after it has been closed.

30 review for The Professor of Poetry

  1. 5 out of 5

    Blair

    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 ref 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.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Maya Panika

    It starts out a beautiful bitter-sweet story of a 50 year old virgin’s return to her alma mater – and her former tutor. The writing is intense, glorious; lyrically written, with long passages – sometimes entire chapters – of prose poetry. It was overwhelming at times. For me, a novel needs only so much lyrical writing; it should be the spice, a judicious dash to lift the thing and make it sparkle; it should not be the meat and potatoes as it so often is in The Professor of Poetry. There were man It starts out a beautiful bitter-sweet story of a 50 year old virgin’s return to her alma mater – and her former tutor. The writing is intense, glorious; lyrically written, with long passages – sometimes entire chapters – of prose poetry. It was overwhelming at times. For me, a novel needs only so much lyrical writing; it should be the spice, a judicious dash to lift the thing and make it sparkle; it should not be the meat and potatoes as it so often is in The Professor of Poetry. There were many times when I just wanted to know what was going to happen next; I wanted some plot and there wasn’t enough - a series of events strung loosely together with a lot of marvellous writing isn’t really enough. Of course, this isn’t really about the story; it is all about the writing - which is lovely, masterful, dazzling (etc. etc. etc.) It is also about the characters – principally about the characters. There are only two of them that matter and neither of them are desperately sympathetic, engaging or even interesting for the long run. I’m being very critical and rather negative because I did enjoy The Professor of Poetry; Elizabeth Stone’s sadly unfolding tale had me gripped for a long time, and I was hoping hard for something (anything!) - some turn of events to repay my dedication, and was so very disappointed by the end. Elizabeth cuts a pathetic, tragic, stoical, hopeful, figure as she struggles against her damaging past, hoping to find redemption in her work, but she is so annoyingly erratic. Most of the time, she is a repressed and saturnine workaholic, but becomes as suddenly and unpredictably mercurial as a spoiled starlet when in the presence of her hero and (supposed) love of her life. I suppose brain tumours and unrequited love can do strange things to a personality, but her oddness and neuroses grated on my nerves. I wanted to shake her hard, slap her face and tell her to get over herself. I needed to know more about the inner-life of this stilted, repressed brace of characters. I needed to know how Elizabeth Stone came to be the way she is (there are hints, but nothing more). By the end, I felt crushed, battered and bruised by the weight of all the Magnificent Writing, and so dreadfully disappointed in Elizabeth, who really just needed a man to save her after all. I thought that cure by magic cock was only to be found in fanfiction (where it is rightly mocked and derided). I certainly hoped for a better ending from a novel by a writer of this stature.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sonja Trbojevic

    Literary, lyrical, about poetry; all the thing I love, and which made me eagerly await this book. It is beautifully written, but I could not read it! The story was unbelievable, the characters unlikeable, and after much trying, I had to abandon it. I may try again sometime.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Belinda

    A friend of mine who reviews for the papers said that a good reviewer judges the book by the bar the writer sets and whether it achieves that bar. Perhaps this is why I am unsure of this book. There are a number of ideas here, the life of Elizabeth Stone and how it begins to step outside the neat little parameters she's always set for herself, the academic world and her need to prove herself, the poet TS Eliot and the idea that poetic words are a construct which really support the more important A friend of mine who reviews for the papers said that a good reviewer judges the book by the bar the writer sets and whether it achieves that bar. Perhaps this is why I am unsure of this book. There are a number of ideas here, the life of Elizabeth Stone and how it begins to step outside the neat little parameters she's always set for herself, the academic world and her need to prove herself, the poet TS Eliot and the idea that poetic words are a construct which really support the more important reasons for poems - musicality, the life of someone's past and the effect of memory, and/or Ms Stone's friendship with her old lecturer. There's quite a lot to hang this novel on. And it's all written so beautifully, so carefully, so poetically. Some SPOILERS below. Now, I am a poet and the concept of music in poetry is not new, not new at all, nowhere near new. For me to believe that a genius and academic would pin her hopes on the startling revelations of musicality in TS Eliot's poetry would be to switch my brain off. I find this concept odd. How can anyone who is as obviously well read as Ms McCleen believe in this idea? Next, Ms Stone is a career woman and a very good one. Her career depends on publication of academic articles and lectures as well. To have a lull in the writing doesn't quite ring true, after all, she is the essay writer of all essay writers. To stop would mean she couldn't really achieve professorship. So this also didn't feel accurate enough. Yes, I know this is fiction but we do have to buy into some realities, and every PhD I know writes academic papers for publication, end of story. Then there's Ms Stone's dismissal of women writers - Woolf and the poet who gassed herself (Plath), and the complete submission to the dominance of male poets like Eliot. This rankled. Eliot said that poets must speak in the language of their time. Eliot was pre-feminism, pre-confessionalism, pre the shift away from the concept of a stable "I". Is Eliot used here as a symbol of Elizabeth's buttoned down half life? I hope so. I will believe that this is the case here and say this is a clever device. Otherwise the fact that women are ignored here is really quite shocking and borders on insulting. Buttoned down - well, Elizabeth is so repressed that she's annoying. Yet the language is compelling enough to read on, to watch Elizabeth's carefully built up layers peel away. Psychologically this fraying is interesting, suspenseful, but not without the wish that the author would just get on with it. Finally we get to the nub of the bulb, Edward Hunt. Satisfying in some ways, obvious in others, frustrating as well (will Elizabeth ever stand up for herself, open up a tiny bit??). So what has happened? Are all her physical symptoms of illness attributable to containing a long and passionate feeling? Does her quick fix have to be at the hands of a man? The feminist in me sighs unhappily, the romantic says, "how nice". Does this book achieve what it set out to do? I have no idea but, as a woman, I kind of feel betrayed at the insipidness of Stone and the inability of McCleen to acknowledge the women who've contributed so much to poetry.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mirren Jones

    This took a very long time to read. Not because the plot was complicated, no - but because so many sentences are of such great beauty that they deserved reading again, and savouring. McCleen is right up there with the literary big guns in my opinion. In this book she has developed a very strange character:a solitary little girl named Elizabeth Stone (initially brought up by her mother in a house by the sea, then who goes to live with aloof foster parents)who is clever enough to get a place at a This took a very long time to read. Not because the plot was complicated, no - but because so many sentences are of such great beauty that they deserved reading again, and savouring. McCleen is right up there with the literary big guns in my opinion. In this book she has developed a very strange character:a solitary little girl named Elizabeth Stone (initially brought up by her mother in a house by the sea, then who goes to live with aloof foster parents)who is clever enough to get a place at a prestigious university where she is a star student for her hipster mentor, Professor Edward Hunt. Their intellectual admiration is mutual, and it leads to a chaste, but passionate friendship. Despite her growing love for her Professor (although she does not recognise it as that) Elizabeth has made an internal vow to make her work her life, in which there is no place for men. After leaving the 'city of books' (never named but thought to be Oxford) she pursues her own academic career, becoming a Professor of Poetry. The novel examines Elizabeth's internal conflicts and influences that have formed her personality, skipping back and forth through time; her childhood, her university days, her interactions with Edward. It's difficult to like her - she is aloof, selfish, totally driven to succeed intellectually and makes minimal effort to fit in with the social scene. Yet McCleen keeps us completely interested in both Elizabeth's thought processes and her behaviours with such mesmerising prose that it has the ability to evoke all the reader's senses at once. The novel begins with the Professor of Poetry being given the news that the brain cancer she developed at 52 is in remission. This brush with cancer galvanises her into returning to the city where she was a student to undertake research for what she hopes will be her life's masterpiece. Whilst there she rekindles her friendship with Edward, and the story takes off, weaving a grand tragedy. This is a book that will stay in the memory long after the last page has been read. It could also be viewed as an example of literary fiction of the highest order. Wonderful. (Jones)

  6. 4 out of 5

    Meera

    Not quite sure. This is obviously a really talented author, and loved her first book (The beautiful 'Land of Decoration'), and although this started quite promisingly, I felt that it descended a bit into almost a parody of a love story and I was actually laughing at the last bit as it seemed so trite. It tells the story of actually two 'Professors of Poetry': Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic in her 50s, revisiting the high profile university of her youth (obviously Oxford or Cambridge from Not quite sure. This is obviously a really talented author, and loved her first book (The beautiful 'Land of Decoration'), and although this started quite promisingly, I felt that it descended a bit into almost a parody of a love story and I was actually laughing at the last bit as it seemed so trite. It tells the story of actually two 'Professors of Poetry': Elizabeth Stone, a respected academic in her 50s, revisiting the high profile university of her youth (obviously Oxford or Cambridge from the lush descriptions of courtyards, towers and overworked undergraduates); and her professor while there, Edward Hunt. Elizabeth has lived something of a lonely life, concentrating only on her work, and not human relationships since her mother's disappearance at an early age, but her feelings for her old professor are complex. Some of the writing was gorgeous, but I have to say I got a bit lost with the more theoretical ponderings of poetry. I also found the flashbacks to Elizabeth's childhood a little dull and overwrought, I didn't feel they sufficiently explained why she was so messed up as an adult. The major issue is the characterisation of Professor Hunt - he is blatently ripped off Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre with all the descriptions of his impatience, and flaws and dark brooding looks. And then Elizabeth is something of a Jane, meek and mild but fiercely clever despite her shy appearance - but I have no idea what he saw in her, as she was so stand offish and rude.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mary Hamer

    Am I the ideal reader for this novel or the very worst possible? It’s set in Oxford and in libraries, my own world. Reading, I ricocheted between admiration and impatience. But I kept reading. The writing is exquisite, no other word will do, precise, scrupulous, in its rendering of sensation and of the endless rippling pleasures of the natural world. If you like the modernist Dorothy Richardson’s work, you’ll recognise a similar gift, McCleen has a poet’s power over words, a poet’s ear and she h Am I the ideal reader for this novel or the very worst possible? It’s set in Oxford and in libraries, my own world. Reading, I ricocheted between admiration and impatience. But I kept reading. The writing is exquisite, no other word will do, precise, scrupulous, in its rendering of sensation and of the endless rippling pleasures of the natural world. If you like the modernist Dorothy Richardson’s work, you’ll recognise a similar gift, McCleen has a poet’s power over words, a poet’s ear and she has been in love with Oxford, possibly still is. So there’s a very great deal to enjoy here, just on this account. But the story itself concerns a heroine, Elizabeth, who herself sees the world and responds with this thin-skinned intensity, a woman in whom these gifts of sensibility are in fact a sign of emotional damage, a way of putting off connection with her own life. That’s where my impatience came in. It’s a very closely observed study of damage that starts in early childhood but it does mean that you have to watch Elizabeth making the same mistakes over and over. It’s had fabulous notices and Hilary Mantel endorsed it, so maybe I’m just too close.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Beautiful and limited at the same time. People say it's poetic because a of the sheer volume (and beauty) of metaphors it contains. However, I got to the point where I thought, "please, not another 'like...'". The story is evocative, but one gets the feeling that it lacks a point, like a china letter opener. "It's beautiful, but why am I reading this?" Maybe this is because it's a romance, albeit for intelligent, repressed people who perhaps went to Oxford. It prob deserves 4 stars but the beaut Beautiful and limited at the same time. People say it's poetic because a of the sheer volume (and beauty) of metaphors it contains. However, I got to the point where I thought, "please, not another 'like...'". The story is evocative, but one gets the feeling that it lacks a point, like a china letter opener. "It's beautiful, but why am I reading this?" Maybe this is because it's a romance, albeit for intelligent, repressed people who perhaps went to Oxford. It prob deserves 4 stars but the beauty turned out a little empty in the end...

  9. 5 out of 5

    sisterimapoet

    I really liked this book. Yes. A lot. I felt so thoroughly sucked into its world that it felt quite a wrench to pull myself out of it and back into my own. I felt like in some small and significant way reading it has changed me, or at least given me a welcome jolt. It felt a bit like reading a female Ian McEwan. A pleasing absorption into the thoughts and feelings of an intelligent and complex woman. And lots about poetry too!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mary Lou

    Professor Stone has devoted most of her academic life and work to the study of Milton, and now in her fifties she is forced to wonder if her life's work is of any consequence. She revisits her alma mater to follow a lead that might be the basis of her best work so far. A stunning stunning read, with language and structure that is simply breathtaking and certainly leaves an impact

  11. 4 out of 5

    Carol Fenlon

    Has to be one of the best books I've ever read. Beautiful writing, a sensitive story provoking about life and meaning. Takes a lot to bring tears to my eyes but this book did it. I couldn't put it down.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Pgchuis

    Very, very beautiful. It made me homesick for Oxford and tutorials and working hard and using my brain.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kaye

    Forty plus years ago, when I was at a girls only Catholic college, we were virgins (sort of) read TS Eliot and got crushes on our tutors. I can imagine one of us - me even - cooking up this fantasy. How would it be possible to shag our hunky tutor who leaned on our desks and murmured about Wyatt, and yet not be damned for eternity? Well, imagine if you were really really old - fifty, but exactly the same as you are now - and imagine if you were still a virgin and you were dying of something that Forty plus years ago, when I was at a girls only Catholic college, we were virgins (sort of) read TS Eliot and got crushes on our tutors. I can imagine one of us - me even - cooking up this fantasy. How would it be possible to shag our hunky tutor who leaned on our desks and murmured about Wyatt, and yet not be damned for eternity? Well, imagine if you were really really old - fifty, but exactly the same as you are now - and imagine if you were still a virgin and you were dying of something that didn't make you squelchy and ugly, and imagine if you were a really good, godly, student and despised all silly women like you were told, and concentrated on old TS - well, then it might be okay. And I think that forty years ago too, we might have written it in language as ludicrously overblown as this, giving ourselves ticks in the margin as we did so. But that was forty-five years ago and we grew up, and had sex, and got feminism, didn't we? How did this get published, now?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    I think that McCleen was trying to make her writing poetic since this novel was about two poetry professors, but much of the time it felt like she had swallowed a thesaurus and there were just strings of adjectives one after the other. But the story although slight was tender, and there were some very moving moments. We met both the professors in their 20s and 30s, and then in their 50s and 60s, and I'm not sure that the older professors had aged enough. Time didn't seem to have changed them, an I think that McCleen was trying to make her writing poetic since this novel was about two poetry professors, but much of the time it felt like she had swallowed a thesaurus and there were just strings of adjectives one after the other. But the story although slight was tender, and there were some very moving moments. We met both the professors in their 20s and 30s, and then in their 50s and 60s, and I'm not sure that the older professors had aged enough. Time didn't seem to have changed them, and I didn't find them very believable. The whole thing wasn't helped by the reader - Gemma Whelan - who pronounced Ls at the end of words with a W. So pull became puwl, fall - fawl, and call, cawl. So that after a while I stopped listening to the story and found myself trying to spot them just for fun.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Josanne

    This book is written like a poem, dense, literary and sadly I found it very hard to read. To be honest I found myself skimming on, something I basically never do. At times whilst the writing was beautiful and Grace McCleen has an impressive command of the English language it made the story line so obscure it became hard to understand. I really wanted to like it, I really wanted to go on this journey with Elizabeth the main character but sadly I found it frustrating rather than wonderful.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Giskin

    I didn't really get on with this book, although I persisted after nearly giving up several times. I found the main character implausible (loves poetry but an almost allergic reaction to music?), and although there were a few lovely, descriptive passages, much of it was tedious and over-written.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Viv

    Quite simply: superb. Loved The Land of Decoration. But this is even better. What a fabulously original writer.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Shuk Wah Lee

    I think McCleen is trying a bit too hard to impress us with her overtly poetic sentences, which render the dangerously simple plot even more simplistic.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jo

    The language here, especially in parts, is beautiful and mirrors the lyrical, literary themes throughout, which are the focus of Elizabeth's (the 'professor of poetry') study. Having been told that, following a fight with cancer, she is once again 'to all intents and purposes.. a well woman' (page 3), Elizabeth decides to search for inspiration for her ultimate academic thesis, after feeling she has stagnated somewhat in this area of her life. This prompts a return to 'the city of books', where y The language here, especially in parts, is beautiful and mirrors the lyrical, literary themes throughout, which are the focus of Elizabeth's (the 'professor of poetry') study. Having been told that, following a fight with cancer, she is once again 'to all intents and purposes.. a well woman' (page 3), Elizabeth decides to search for inspiration for her ultimate academic thesis, after feeling she has stagnated somewhat in this area of her life. This prompts a return to 'the city of books', where years before she was a student. After reaching out to contact a professor from her time there, Elizabeth makes her arrival in the city and we are promptly drawn into the parallels of her life as a student and her life now, returning many years down the line. Can her relationship with the professor reach the heights she has always wished, after striving to impress him for years? Will her past catch up with her and force her to consider the path her life has taken? Overall this is a very introspective novel. The format is great, set mainly over eight days and interspersing chapters from Elizabeth's past and present. It allows us a great depth of character and we get to know more about her troubled mind and how she came to be in the place she is in life. I felt that, although this was the case, there was something a bit lacking and we ultimately were left without a full concept of why Elizabeth is the way she is, very academic and introverted to the extreme at times, even with the sum of the experiences we do come to know about. She herself is somewhat of a closed book. There are intriguing literary passages and it can't be doubted that McCleen can write. I feel that, in the end, it was just a little too wordy though, and the book dragged on. There was a real lack of pacing and plot development, particularly in the middle section, and I did find it hard to get through which was disappointing after a promising start. I'm not sure if it was the character or slow pace of development that was irritating, but it was just a little lacking in a few elements.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I really had to focus to read this one. Beautiful, rich, lyrical and engrossing. So much detail - almost too much at times, rather like the baking sun and summer heat she evokes. So many minute and fascinating details which I needed to reread to fully appreciate. At times I felt cross and impatient with the main character around whom the novel revolves...How can you be so inward looking? Stop lying about how you feel! Go out and live a little! Open your eyes! Very much a 'literary' novel written I really had to focus to read this one. Beautiful, rich, lyrical and engrossing. So much detail - almost too much at times, rather like the baking sun and summer heat she evokes. So many minute and fascinating details which I needed to reread to fully appreciate. At times I felt cross and impatient with the main character around whom the novel revolves...How can you be so inward looking? Stop lying about how you feel! Go out and live a little! Open your eyes! Very much a 'literary' novel written about a closed, literary world.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Anya Siddiqi

    Not an easy read, or an easily liked protagonist, but McCleen is truly such a wordsmith with describing her main characters inner and outer atmospheres and turmoil, it is quite difficult to stop reading until the end.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Helen Bookwoods

    It is hard to pigeon hole this book, but in the end I can say that I loved it, even though at one stage I skipped a chapter in exasperation (and I never skip chapters). It is a testament to this novel that as soon as I finished it (weeping surreptitiously into a tissue), I went straight back to read the skipped chapter. The novel starts with 52-year-old poetry professor, Elizabeth Stone, walking out of her oncologist’s office, and feeling the pulsing presence of aliveness – she’s just been told t It is hard to pigeon hole this book, but in the end I can say that I loved it, even though at one stage I skipped a chapter in exasperation (and I never skip chapters). It is a testament to this novel that as soon as I finished it (weeping surreptitiously into a tissue), I went straight back to read the skipped chapter. The novel starts with 52-year-old poetry professor, Elizabeth Stone, walking out of her oncologist’s office, and feeling the pulsing presence of aliveness – she’s just been told the tumour in her brain, is there no more. Typically, Elizabeth does not go on the relaxing holiday prescribed by her doctor but straight to the British Library thinking about her next book, the follow up to her first, seminal, work on Milton. Going towards the reading room she’s distracted by a glass case containing an original of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton. As though the manuscript is, in fact, burning, she can’t get it out of her mind. Seeing this work by Eliot takes her back to her entrance interview to an Oxbridge college in the early 80s and the copy of Elliot (read aloud on tapes) that turns up in the mail in the cold home where she stays with her foster parents; the tapes are from Professor Hunt – the other professor of poetry, the one who could see the potential and the genius in the withdrawn, pale 17-year-old girl, who is so overwhelmed by Hunt in the interview that she can hardly speak: "… the words begin to stretch themselves across the room – or it may be a firmament and the words spheres, because music is a better way to describe the sounds that are lapping around her now … Spheres, words and room are swimming together; his voice dark, the paper pale, the letters flesh – or is the flesh letters? … the words are pattering like raindrops in a wood. Then she hears a voice say, ‘Are you all right?’ and he is propping her up. The words collected themselves, the firmament vanishes, there is a humming in her ears." Oh, dear reader, that is just the beginning of the most wonderful, wonderful story. McCleen is staggeringly erudite, it is such a pleasure to spend so much time in Professor Stone’s head, and the writing … (yes, it was the writing that made me skip that chapter so overblown, I thought, so detailed, so curlicued, so oblique) … the writing is wonderful – I just decided to go with it and I was swept up with its beauty: "After the sunlit hours in the garden, after the bustle of the high street, a warm front, a dusk front moves in. It seems to come from the river. It slips through arches, alleyways, gardens and quads, circles a chapel and passes a church, eddies the steps of a circular room with a roof bluer than the sky; you look up from your desk and it’s there, it’s happening, it’s all around you. Some small sigh of restlessness drawing things away, at the back of the evening, as the day reaches out to the night." When you cry, when you want to go back and read over sections, when you want to buy your sister a copy, when you just feel dumbfounded at the achievement … well, I feel all those things about this book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Damaskcat

    Elizabeth Stone is a respected academic who has been told she is in remission from cancer. She decides to spend some time in the city where she attended university over thirty years ago consulting some T S Eliot papers and maybe visit her former tutor - Professor Edward Hunt - the professor of poetry. Elizabeth has decided to write about T S Eliot even though she has made her name writing about Milton and has another book half finished about his work. Should she contact Professor Hunt? Or should Elizabeth Stone is a respected academic who has been told she is in remission from cancer. She decides to spend some time in the city where she attended university over thirty years ago consulting some T S Eliot papers and maybe visit her former tutor - Professor Edward Hunt - the professor of poetry. Elizabeth has decided to write about T S Eliot even though she has made her name writing about Milton and has another book half finished about his work. Should she contact Professor Hunt? Or should she leave things alone and hope she bumps into him? Eventually she writes but doesn't receive the reply she had hoped and feared but she decides to stick to her plans anyway and consult the archive which she now has permission to do. This is an incredibly beautiful book. The story is slight and it is all in the writing and the way the author makes Elizabeth's thoughts and life almost luminous. Elizabeth is very sensitive to sounds and when she goes out she wears ear plugs. Which could make her seem something of a hypochondriac but it doesn't because it is treated matter of factly by the author as just part of Elizabeth. The descriptions of how poetry, music and daily life make Elizabeth feel and react are marvellously done and can be lingered over and savoured by the reader. The book describes episodes from her childhood and from her time at university and I thought it was particularly good on the way learning about a subject can set your mind alight and energise you. I found myself nodding in agreement when over how Elizabeth feels about reading and how she loses herself in a book. This is a book to be lingered over and savoured and Grace McClean has to be one of the best authors writing today in my opinion. If you enjoy reading A S Byatt then you will probably enjoy reading this book.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    This is beautifully written in such a way that it is almost poetical. Indeed, even people with little or no knowledge of poetry would be unable to sit back without shouting for Elizabeth and Edward to accept what the author here weaves in their story. While poetry is not the subject of the book it plays an intricate part in the growing of a young, inexperienced girl and eventually draws her to full adulthood many years after her majority. This is a tale that once begun must be finished. It is no This is beautifully written in such a way that it is almost poetical. Indeed, even people with little or no knowledge of poetry would be unable to sit back without shouting for Elizabeth and Edward to accept what the author here weaves in their story. While poetry is not the subject of the book it plays an intricate part in the growing of a young, inexperienced girl and eventually draws her to full adulthood many years after her majority. This is a tale that once begun must be finished. It is not for the faint hearted in that it is a slow read - definitely not one that can be read and fully digested in an afternoon. It is this that makes it the fabulous and worthwhile book that it is

  25. 4 out of 5

    SarahJaneSmith

    I loved The Land of Decoration, therefore I had high expectations. Grace McCleen really writes beautifully, but I didn`t enjoy The Professor of Poetry as much as I thought I would. Sometimes the story felt too grandiose and the protagonists too strange and extreme: I was either annoyed with Elizabeth Stone or felt pity for her - she`s not what I would call an emancipated woman. Another aspect I couldn`t really relate to was this romanticized view of an academic environment. But on the whole I li I loved The Land of Decoration, therefore I had high expectations. Grace McCleen really writes beautifully, but I didn`t enjoy The Professor of Poetry as much as I thought I would. Sometimes the story felt too grandiose and the protagonists too strange and extreme: I was either annoyed with Elizabeth Stone or felt pity for her - she`s not what I would call an emancipated woman. Another aspect I couldn`t really relate to was this romanticized view of an academic environment. But on the whole I liked to be irritated by this painful, poetic and lonely otherworldliness.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Capnniknak

    A heartbreaker of a novel. Starts off being quite hard to follow, then unravels in an intriguing manner. I finished this on the way back home from holiday and was crying on the plane as I got towards the end. Not many books make me do this. Some bits were a bit awkward and the power play / push and pull between Edward and Elizabeth is strange and frustrating but I enjoyed Land of Decoration and cant wait to read more by this author.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Albertine67

    I just happened to pick this up in the library - and loved it. I read it in one sitting and I really need to 're-read it; the writing is lyrical and superb, the story moving but also quite challenging at times given the natures of both academics. There's also a lot of thought provoking stuff about poetry which deserves more attention than I could give it in that first, passionate read.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Isla Scott

    I feel like most of this wooshed over my head, as its quite...I suppose you'd say abstract, yet I enjoyed it regardless. Its certainly a very poetic book and some parts I felt I understood and in some ways related to, more easily than others. I felt that the outcome was perhaps somewhat ambiguous. It was quite sad too, although there was an element of hope, which helped.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Geraldine

    There was a lot that was good about this book; interesting heroine and emotional landscape but such long descriptive passages and, in the end, just a slightly clichéd love story. Still, worth reading.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Pirie

    Grace McCleen can write. Really write. What is actually a fairly uneventful plot is carefully crafted in her expert hands into a melifluous and genteel peice of prose. She writes with empathy and a delicate attention to detail. I enjoyed this book for the writing alone.

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