This book comes recommended, mostly notably perhaps by Hilary Mantel, who describes it as ‘an astonishing and luminous novel’.

I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that were not initially obvious. It grew on me, as did the main character, ‘The Professor of Poetry’ Elizabeth, who I empathised with much more with as I progressed through the book than I had at the outset. There is much to consider here, even after, or perhaps particularly after, reading the final sentence.

Elizabeth is an academic, a serious academic in her early 50s whose single life revolves around her work, which is poetry, particularly Milton and Eliot. She becomes ill, and is subsequently diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour. Her post treatment scans reveal a remission, something Elizabeth was not expecting. In the light of this news, and reprieve, she decides uncharacteristically to do something different, to be spontaneous, and to seize something from the gift of time that she has just been granted. She decides to revisit her past, the university of her younger years, and also her tutor of that time, who still teaches there.

‘The day was perfect and it was her own, had been wrapped and presented to her, and she smiled at the pleasing coincidence: the present, for once, being precisely where she found herself.’

We learn much about Elizabeth’s character as she commences her journey, and as she reminisces on her present and on her past. We discover that, for example, ‘Elizabeth doesn’t ‘do’ love poetry’. She also doesn’t ‘do’ summer. But we also learn that as a child growing up, her mother used to retreat ‘from the everyday world by a process of not-being, not-saying, not-doing’.

Elizabeth has mastered, at least in her professional life but one also suspects in her personal life, ‘The Art of Detachment’:

‘It was easier to eschew human beings than interact with them.’

She had a troubled and a tragic childhood, memories of which flood persistently Elizabeth’s consciousness.

‘The sea taught the child that pain takes place only in time, that it was impossible to hurt and be truly occupied, but if your hours were empty, pain could be felt very clearly indeed. Pain had much in common with the sea. Both ebbed, both went unnoticed for hours on end, then reared up and took your breath, and neither pain nor the sea was ever completely at rest.’

From an early age, poetry was her consolation, her safety net.

‘A poem could usually be counted upon to shatter the quiet, carry them through the wilderness and bring the knight back safe.’

As she considers her childhood, lost moments and regrets of her time as a university student, and also explores the poetry of Eliot, Elizabeth gradually experiences an epiphany of sorts:

‘What must it be like to produce a living creature instead of one made of paper and ink? A creature that became a real entity, no longer merely an appendage to its creator.’

 ‘She was suddenly reminded of something Eliot had written somewhere, that most people were ‘only very little alive’. Eliot was obsessed with buried lives, unlived lives, the life of the living dead.’

This realisation culminates in one night of inescapable and painful self-reflection:

‘It suddenly occurred to her that she had travelled further this night than she had her whole life.’

Speaking to her body, which she mostly ignored all her life until illness happened (although ‘For as long as she could remember Professor Stone had lived with a pain in her chest’):

‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’

‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’

‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’

There is much tenderness in the book’s denouement, and McCleen’s style throughout is as poetic as the poetry she refers to. So much of the prose passages made me stop and think, not just about Elizabeth, but also about who or what I might be and have become:

‘It was strange to see people one had known a long time ago: they were always unchanged and changed completely, and somewhere within that contradiction lay the state of ourselves, she supposed.’

CQ

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