The Professor of Poetry, By Grace McCleen

Life and literature seldom make a perfect rhyme, as a learned, troubled heroine discovers

Adeliberately restricted life is not necessarily one devoid of intensity. Judith McPherson, the 10-year-old protagonist of Grace McCleen's debut, The Land of Decoration, is brought up in a fundamentalist Christian community where normal childhood joys are shunned, yet her imagination runs riot in the form of the bedroom model world of the title. McCleen's follow-up centres on Elizabeth Stone, a literature professor in her early fifties who has chosen to exclude life's conventional attachments. Yet she's no prim spinster but a volcano of banked-up passion.

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Recently cleared of cancer, Stone returns to the university where she was an undergraduate (not named, but resembling Oxford) to consult some obscure TS Eliot papers and attempt to write her masterwork. Formerly an expert on Milton, she is now following a lead from Four Quartets and writing on "the poetics of sound"; the element that brings poetry closest to music which, ironically enough, she cannot bear. Music reminds her of her mother, who died tragically when she was young.

McCleen uses two alternating time-frames, contrasting Stone's anxiety-ridden student years and the present. By returning to the city of a youthful crisis, Elizabeth risks upending her carefully controlled maturity. As she pores over the papers in the Hyland bequest, we soon suspect that the professor of poetry herself is unaware of her real reason for going back.

As a clever schoolgirl, trying for the university, she discussed To The Lighthouse with one of the dons. Virginia Woolf as much as Eliot presides over this novel: long stretches of rich, intense description evoke Woolf's "moments of being", even as they mesh with Eliot's dryer musings about time past and time present. Adding to Elizabeth's unease are her complex feelings about meeting her old tutor again, 30 years after her first intellectual crisis.

There is eerily little change in Professor Edward Hunt or his rooms, beyond the disappearance of his Joy Division albums. But reigniting their edgy relationship, and being among rampant students, has a painful effect on Elizabeth. There is not much humour in this earnest book, but her approach to alleviating sexual tension raises a smile: "Usually a brisk walk dispersed it, or a hot bath. If all else failed a translation of Gower could be counted upon to do the trick."

The narrative is richly subjective, conveying the excitement of ideas rather than of action. The thrill of her Eliot mission is well evoked, though as a critic Elizabeth is at one remove from the white heat of creation. Occasionally, McCleen's rapturous prose blurs and collapses, and there's an odd scene in a tutorial where Hunt and his supposedly brilliant English students discuss Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" under the impression that it's a sonnet. Sometimes McCleen's strenuous effort to make things strange backfires. The young Elizabeth describes her mother's classical music records as "spheres". A more correct term would be "discs" – which is what they're usually called.

The text contains a peculiar self-contradiction: just as Elizabeth has buried her emotional life in her work, McCleen disguises her purpose by writing about the surface rather than the depths. So if Elizabeth has wasted her life, then much of the novel is concerned with an irrelevant quest. But it's hard not to be swept up as McCleen guides her characters to a conclusion that is at once deeply conventional and intensely strange.