The Whole Wide Beauty, By Emily Woof

An intimate portrait of family affairs
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The Independent Culture

Every family has its own private history of cruelties and betrayals – a treasure-trove 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, 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. In this state of mind, she meets the charismatic poet Stephen Jericho at an event hosted by her father, David, the director of a northern poetry foundation. She's soon embroiled in a passionate affair that reconnects her to herself and the world.

Katherine's illicit relationship is only one of several explored in this rich ensemble piece. Running in tandem with her adventure is the story of her alcoholic aunt, Charlotte, and her self-serving husband. The drama at the heart of the novel, however, belongs to Katherine's parents, David and May.

As long as she can remember, her father's work has eclipsed family life, her otherwise sensible mother a willing accomplice in his hare-brained schemes. Now in their seventies, the two increasingly frail academics continue to hold court, with David's secret love life swept under the carpet, his frequent bouts of melancholia politely managed.

Despite the novel's contemplative nature, Woof keeps up the narrative pace, moving between London and Carlisle, with a brief interlude set 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 adventure 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 flow more naturally, and the author is at her best plotting the intimate choreography between husbands and wives, friends and lovers.