The Whole Wide Beauty

The Whole Wide Beauty, by Emily Woof, Faber £12.99 304 pages, FT Bookshop price: £10.39

Katherine Freeman, a dancer turned music teacher, is unhappy in her marriage. When she meets the poet Stephen Jericho at a dinner organised by her charismatic father David, director of the Broughton Poetry Foundation in Northumberland, a string of events are set in motion.

The Whole Wide Beauty is a triptych of love stories. The familiar mid-life affair between Stephen and Katherine is observed without moralising or sentimentality; Stephen feels free to work on his epic poem, while Katherine discovers aspects of herself lost to motherhood. Running parallel is the story of Katherine’s alcoholic aunt, Charlotte, and her boorish husband. But the marriage of Katherine’s parents, David and May, and David’s battle with cancer, proves the most compelling part of this immensely readable novel. David, in his seventies, is in love with life and art, but harbours a secret about his sexuality. It is hard not to be moved by these bohemian academics devoted to “abstract beautiful worlds in which their minds could roam free”.

The book charts the web of dependencies that exist between lovers and families and the drama when desires conflict. Emily Woof – who is an actor by profession – handles the material with a skill and confidence that marks her as a debut novelist of the first order. She displays a poet’s eye for the arresting image, such as an elderly man’s hearing aid: “the pinkish plastic looked somehow naked, like a new-born mouse curled in his ear”. The only frustration is that the quality of the writing is occasionally sacrificed for pace of narrative.

The book may be met with gossipy interest in literary circles: Emily Woof’s father was the late Robert Woof, director of the Wordsworth Trust on which the Broughton Poetry Foundation is clearly modelled. However, this is more than simply a roman à clef. In David Freeman, Woof’s writing has richness, complexity and embodied life force.

Adam O’Riordan’s collection of poems ‘In the Flesh’ (Chatto) is published in July

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