ANN Wroe is the long-time obituarist for The Economist. She’s written one a week for more than two decades.

A top obituarist is a master of compression and it comes as no surprise that Wroe is also an accomplished poet and biographer.

Her focus is on trying to capture something of the spirit of her subjects, an attempt to snare their soul. You might see her as one of Wim Wenders’ angels, a figure inspired by Rainer Rilke, watching over people, noting and pitying their foibles; she’s a recording spirit celebrating their humanity.

“I’m a breather, a respirateur, isn’t that enough?” So said the artist Marcel Duchamp in a typically cryptic but deep interview with Calvin Tomkins. One imagines Wroe nodding in agreement.

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In Lifescapes, she talks about the divine breath of other civilisations:

“The prana of the Vedas, the qi of the Taoists, the pneuma of the Greeks … the ha of the Egyptians, for whom the hidden nature of the divine, the self or soul, was simply breathing.”

Wroe muses on breathing during our time of Covid-19. She highlights the brave life of Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist in Wuhan, who first noted the odd clusters of pneumonia. He too would die from the virus and posted visions of his decline online to the horror of the Chinese authorities.

More cheerily, Wroe loves detail – like a pointillist painter she caresses the particular – and talks about poor Wenliang’s love of fish rolls and wasabi.

Like an expert philatelist, she notes the watermarks and imperfections that individualise us.

She makes you see the intense chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, like “a bird of prey hovering”, before playing those Russian boys out of town.

Or the opera director Dr Jonathan Miller rocking himself as he sits, hands clasped at the back of his head, unsure why he’s compelled to make this gesture.

Wroe talks of signs that speak, finding hats “eloquent”, wonders what favourite mugs reveal or styles of spectacles, noting how Harold Pinter’s glasses were “worn slightly askew as if thrust on in rage”.

She strives for an observation “perfect as Johannes Vermeer”, as if distrusting theatrical poses, hers is a desire to catch people unaware, in their true nature of distraction/abstraction.

And she has seen death – a London commuter collapsing before a tube train, a boy on a bike in Benares, another lad drowned in an Italian lake. But she’s at pains to stress that most of her obituaries “are celebrations of life”.

She seldom mentions the cause of death; she’s not writing for the British Medical Journal.

ONE of Rowe’s main inspirations is Shelley, and she agrees with him that life is “that astonishing thing” that cannot be “merely physiological and mechanical”. Like Shelley, hers is a soul “at enmity with nothingness and dissolution”.

Her own poetry revels in making us see what might otherwise appear as transparent things, “small, clumsy snatches of life”, the sometimes-startling details in the quotidian as with quivering brambles, the play of shadows.

There’s a love of the sea here too, Wroe lives in Brighton and knows how “waves stipple and dapple like the skin of a beast, gather all over like ruched silk or pulsate, barely moving, beneath an untroubled sky”.

Wroe’s writing has her poetry ebbing and flowing through thoughts on the dead, letting it drift on different currents thus keeping her protean narrative in gentle flux. Lifescapes is a slow read, the thinking hard-won, much-revised, lived-in.

Her book is about soul but not those of the plastic or rubber kind, and not specifically about Motown either, although lady singers with great soul, such as Aretha Franklin and Miriam Makeba, are featured.

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We learn of Aretha’s grim childhood but its transcendence through song, Miriam’s transmutation of South African “cries from the heart” into, as Wroe says “rhythm and joy”.

Books that are genuinely wise are rare. This is one of them.

Wroe’s sense of the ineffable is not new-age hippy-dippy baloney. It’s truly into the mystic as Van the Man has it.

There’s a deeper optimism at work here that’s not remotely unwelcome in these grim times. Hilary Mantel thought Wroe a genius; John Banville digs her too. I think you will as well.

The National: