That second novel! Your first has been agreeably successful, not a Man Booker lister but creditable recognition by Granta, the BBC New British Writers list, Orange Prize for New British and Commonwealth Writers, John Llewellyn and Betty Trask, Desmond Elliott Prize for the best first novel of the year; there are so many prizes out there, these are just a few listed as won by these authors…and now there is a new sheet of white paper (or a blank document on the screen but that doesn’t sound quite so romantic or challenging).
Grace McCleen’s first book The Land of Decoration was described as “tremendously skilfully and arrestingly written” [The Sunday Times]; “bursting with tension and tenderness” [Daily Mail]; “a wonderful gem of a debut novel” [Independent on Sunday]. She won the Desmond Elliott prize mentioned above and was also chosen for Richard and Judy’s Book Club, so was the new venture going to be a challenge and did she meet it?
The Professor of Poetry is a compact and insightful book, told mostly from the point of view of the Professor, Elizabeth Stone, an academic in one of London’s universities (it is not clear until later which). She finds that she is ill. There are so many novels that deal with the life changing effects of living with cancer these days that it comes as no surprise to find that this is another.
Elizabeth reacts in what one presumes is a fairly characteristic way: one last chance to write the masterpiece, complete the research and tie up loose ends. This novel swings back and forth between her presence in the university where she began her student career, not quite Oxford or Cambridge but a sort of hybrid, and her current research, her old tutor Edward Hunt and her past; her strangely sad childhood, youth and self-hating adulthood. I was drawn into this drama largely because the symptoms Elizabeth had were more or less exactly those of one of my friends, and the causes were missed by the medics and her friends until it was nearly too late. I kept thinking, “if only I had read this earlier”. The denouement is as sudden as a summer squall, drenching and violent and blindingly obvious to everyone except Elizabeth herself. I really enjoyed reading this.
The other novel, All the Birds Singing, is the second novel by Evie Wyld. Her first novel was short listed for the Orange Award for New Writers, and won the John Llewellyn and the Betty Trask. In 2013 she was also named among Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and previously named by the BBC as one of twelve best new British writers.
Funnily enough, this book is also the story of a self-hating young woman but she is of a quite different calibre from Elizabeth Stone. I suppose one could reasonably describe Jake as a drop-out. Her past is literally branded on to her back, the scarring is not unlike a ploughed field. Each chapter veers from the present, an island off an English or Scottish (?) mainland where she is having trouble with something killing her sheep, to her ‘back story’ in Australia where she is a roustabout, which is an itinerant sheep handler, shearing or rousting the sheep on various stations, further back and she is with an “uncle” Otto, and further back still, she is a streetwalker. But all the time she is as nervous as hell about being followed, we have no idea why until the very end. The island where she is at present is about as far removed from her past as possible, only the sheep and the noisy birds have any connection to her past, and yet she is still very fearful.
When I say that this was a book I read by daylight, or with every lamp blazing in the room, you will understand, either that I am a wimp or that this is an intensely gripping novel. Even right at the very end you are not sure how much is her vivid imagination and how much is real. The dead sheep are very real, to her and to us, but what exactly is killing them or who remains horribly uncertain…