The Examined Life


In addition to being the publisher of The Examined Life, Two Rivers Press is pleased to be the distributor for some of James Harpur’s backlist books, including The White SilhouetteAngels and HarvestersThe Dark AgeOracle Bones, and A Vision of Comets, all of which are available to order from our website here.

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James Harpur entered a boy’s boarding school in the 1970s and survived to tell the tale. This sequence of poems is a searingly honest and compelling account of his five-year journey, from leaving home for the first time and sleeping in a dormitory in which enemies appear like shadows, to his sadness at his parents’ separation and the death of a father figure from a bomb. For as well as Prog Rock, flared trousers and industrial strikes, this was the era of the Troubles.

An introvert in an extraverted world, Harpur took refuge in Homer and the magical world of Troy, and found that school could be a haven, and even fun: a sex education lesson that backfired; a rare sighting of girls at a dance; a scary ride on his brother’s illegal motorbike; a surreal trip to Covent Garden. Powerful, poignant and humorous, The Examined Life re-creates a ‘vale of soul-making’ that, with its tragedy and comedy, heroes and villains, is like a microcosm of life itself.

James Harpur. Paperback, 210 x 135 mm, 108 pages, April 2021.

James Harpur has published six previous books of poetry and won a number of prizes, including the 1995 UK National Poetry Competition. He gives talks and workshops on poetry, inspiration and the imagination to schools, universities and at literary festivals.

  • Winner of the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize

‘Harpur is one of the finest poets writing in Ireland and I have long been a fan of his poetry, distinctive for its lyric grace. It’s also possessed of a clarity of voice which is warm, enormously intelligent and often very funny… This collection is quite brilliant — ENDA WYLEY, in the Dublin Review of Books

Boarding School Odyssey

‘A serious success — a subtle account of adolescence, friendship, confinement, the fashions of the 1970s, a meditation on the phrase ‘in loco parentis’, and a brilliant exercise of memory.’ — CHARLES MOORE in The Spectator

‘A quite marvellous work…an Odyssey, a Ulysses shaken up in the snow-dome of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ — From the foreword by STEPHEN FRY

‘A true ‘memory palace’, by turns serious and hilarious, touching and shocking, relentlessly clever, full of fun and mischief.’ —  Agenda

‘The details in James Harpur’s boys boarding school carry something of the soul of England’ — JONATHAN DAVIDSON, The North

‘Completely wonderful to read. I was amazed, amused, horrified, and so very moved.’ — KEGGIE CAREW (Author of ‘Dadland’, winner of the 2017 Costa Biography Prize)

‘It’s an unflinching account of an unholy initiatory ordeal – moving, funny, tender, lyrical and exact …Terrific stuff.’ — LINDSAY CLARKE (Author of ‘The Chymical Wedding’, winner of the 1989 Whitbread Prize)

‘Haunted and haunting… a terrific examination of homesickness – the Odyssey a vibrant framework for Harpur’s five years away at school.’ — MARTINA EVANS, The Irish Times


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