Faber & Faber £7.99 (304pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Whole Wide Beauty, By Emily Woof

Every family has its own private history of cruelties and betrayals – a box of secrets to which first-time novelists are irresistibly drawn. In this appealing debut, actor-turned-writer Emily Woof examines the dynamics of an artistic family more comfortable in the company of strangers than with one another.

Katherine Freeman, a London music teacher and former dancer, has had trouble adapting to the demands of new parenthood. Her marriage to Adam is at a low ebb, their conversations restricted to "child-care management" and the pressures of work. It's while in this state of mind that she meets the charismatic poet, Stephen Jericho, at a fund-raising event hosted by her father, David, the director of a northern poetry foundation. She's soon embroiled in a passionate affair that serves to reconnect her with both herself and the world. Katherine's illicit relationship is only one of several explored in this rich ensemble piece.

Running in tandem with her high risk adventure is the story of her alcoholic aunt, Charlotte, married to the self-serving and boorish Gregory. But the most interesting relationship of the book belongs to Katherine's bohemian parents, David and May. As long as Katherine can remember, her father's work has eclipsed family life, with her otherwise sensible mother acting as willing hand maiden to his hare-brained schemes and artistic enthusiasms.

Now in their seventies, the two increasingly frail academics continue to hold court. David's secret love life is swept under the carpet – he's drawn to beautiful young men – and his frequent bouts of melancholia politely managed.

Despite the novel's gently contemplative nature, Woof keeps up the narrative pace, moving between London and Carlisle, with a brief interlude in Arizona, where Stephen has gone to complete his epic poem. There are few judgements passed in a book that takes an unusually pragmatic approach to romance. Although parallels are drawn between Katherine's desertion of her husband and young son, and her own parents' difficult marital history, her mis-alliance is cast in a forgiving light.

In a novel of pared-down, expressive prose, it's only when orchestrating the crowded set pieces – lakeside poetry gatherings, fund-raising dinners – that Woof's poise occasionally falters. Sex and suffering are her forte, and the author is at her best plotting the intimate choreography between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, friends and lovers.

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