After learning she is in remission from cancer, respected academic Elizabeth Stone returns to the city where she studied at university to write what she hopes to be her masterpiece. But as she starts working on her thesis and rekindles her friendship with a former tutor, memories of the past threaten to overshadow the present, and she begins to realise why she returned to the city.
The Professor of Poetry is a nice story, if a little predictable. Elizabeth’s old tutor from university becomes a large part of the story, and at first I found myself questioning why she was still so affected by a professor from 40 years ago. Yet as the novel continued, I found her story and feelings quite moving – particularly the themes of missed opportunities and ‘what could have been’. McCleen uses poetry well throughout to reflect these themes. In this way it’s a very literary and intellectual book, with references to T.S. Eliot, Milton, Virginia Woolf, and other writers throughout the novel. Quotes are also interspersed throughout, making some parts of the novel read almost like an essay at times. Unfortunately it took me a while to get into the story and it wasn’t until about three-quarters of the way through that I began to feel the sadness of the passing of time and missed opportunities for Elizabeth. The ending of the novel was a little predictable but still felt fitting and satisfying, yet unfortunately I was left expecting more.
McCleen writes in poetic, lyrical, and rich prose throughout the novel. She uses clusters of words to create images which fully immerse the reader, allowing us to fully picture a scene, an emotion, a moment. Her descriptions of the sea are particularly evocative and her creation of university and the sanctity of learning there are captured beautifully, yet sometimes I wished for a simpler description. This wasn’t helped by the long sentences used by McCleen – some could be a paragraph long – which can make the prose difficult to follow at times. There were also instances where sentences were repeated word for word a few chapters apart which felt a little clumsy – there’s the possibility that this could represent the past bleeding into the present as Elizabeth is haunted by memories of her childhood, but the instances of repetition perhaps don’t happen often enough for this to be the case.
Unfortunately this review seems overly negative but overall The Professor of Poetry is a good read, despite the problems I had with the novel. At times McCleen’s writing is beautiful, but the themes of time gone by, missed opportunities, and poetry and music held so much promise that I didn’t feel were completely achieved by the novel’s conclusion. I’ve read that The Professor of Poetry is a departure from McCleen’s first novel, The Land of Decoration, so I’d be interesting in reading it.
Have you read The Professor of Poetry? If you have, I’d be interested what you thought of it, particularly with the ending. Did you think it did justice to Elizabeth Stone or the rest of the story?