Review: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather

It’s a really unusual book in how it’s told – it constantly thwarts your expectations of what it’s actually about. It starts in the present and goes backwards, suddenly switching from a story about a bourgeois family in Hamilton and their affairs to a bona fide adventure tale of exploration and stupendous discovery set in the surreally gorgeous wilderness of the South-west. That latter story, told in splendid lyrical prose that pays reverential respect to nature’s beauty and humankind’s capacity for greatness, is a synthesis of the philosophical underpinning of the book: the fight for authenticity, honour and being true to one’s inner self, the one buried under the piles of family and social conventions, obligations and pressures.766900

The story and spirit of Tom Outland, a prodigious wildling-turned-inventor, imbues the book and holds the key to interpreting every event, every line, every decision made by the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one – I think it can be described as an exploration of the process of disintegration of the fabric of social convention, shared history, family, chance and everything else we call life, and returning to our earliest selves, before we were moulded by external forces.

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