I have to confess that I didn’t get on with The Whole Wide Beauty, Emily Woof’s first novel. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up so you may be surprised to hear that I was eager to give her second a try but its premise is particularly appealing. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development. So I pushed my reservations aside and was very pleased to have done so.
We start with Ursula lying in her pram looking delightedly up at a tree whose branches wave against the sky. Her mother’s inside, head in a pile of CND leaflets – a cause for which she has a passion. Only when she hears Ursula’s shrieks and spots a crow with its beak in her pram does Joyce pay attention. We follow Ursula through her childhood, standing on her head for hours in front of the TV, listening to her grandmother Mary’s litany of complaint, waking from nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, until aged fourteen she visits the hairdresser for an ill-advised perm (this is the ‘80s) and meets Jerry the trainee’s brother, precociously intelligent and the youngest member of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The narrative shifts back and forth between these two following them through their passionate teenage years until their paths fork, one leading to India from which Ursula returns deeply changed, and one to Oxford, where Jerry’s politics, background and sharp intellect mark him out. Into this are woven Mary’s memories of her past which become increasingly more real than her present. Right from the start Woof tells her readers that this is a book about love, but it’s also about the lack of it which has blighted Mary’s life.
Woof’s style is immensely engaging. Funny, a little eccentric, it reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while the structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. Ursula and Jerry are well drawn, nicely rounded, sharply tugging at your heartstrings and making you root for them. The connection between Ursula’s epiphany and her great-grandmother’s which led to so much misery for Mary seemed a little strained to me but that’s a small quibble in what is a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining novel, the kind you can happily polish off in one sitting. It might be time to take a second look at Woof’s first novel.