The priest had reached into his pocket and pulled out a small Bible.
Everything you are searching for is here, he had said, this is the word of God.
She’d read it hungrily, searching for answers. The words filler her in turn with fear, wonder, and bewilderment, but she couldn’t find what she was looking for. She didn’t know what to look for. The world of the Bible, so punishing and alien, meant nothing.
I fall in love with books. Viscerally. I’m a spine cracker, a dog earer, I underline passages in books, I spill coffee in them. So long as words aren’t obscured I want a book to live tangibly in the world, the way I want to hold my partner’s hand. I buy a vast number of books and I have review requests via email and NetGalley, my reading world is comprised of a long queue of potential loves. I’m not going to love them all, of course, but some I’m happy to be friends with. Some I know will just be passing acquaintances. Some, however, some novels I know I will take to the grave. I will love forever their tone, their style, the weft of the page. The Lightning Tree is one that sits firmly in the last category. Woof tells her story in such an intimate tone, she may as well be sitting on the couch next to you, with a cup of tea in hand. It is companionable, but there is an urgency, she needs to tell this tale. She takes you by the arm and squeezes, you must understand this, she says. How can I help you understand?
The novel is about Ursula. She meets a boy called Jerry and they fall in love. But life is rarely that simple, and they drift apart, life intervenes and takes them on their own separate journeys. It is a story about love, class, about revelation, about family, about faith and madness, about belonging. It is about how a person manages to be happy in the world. It’s about making peace with yourself, with the world you live in, accepting difference, loving each other regardless. It moved me to my fingertips, my core and down to the soles of my shoes.
She imagines Gabe reading it, and doubts the words, crumples up the paper. She can’t trust herself to write anything at all. She feels a sudden fear he’s lost to her for ever. The twist in her body aches, and she shifts in the seat. The train slows on the outskirts of a town, passing rows of back gardens. There is a blanket in the window of one house, a vase on a sill of another, two beer tins by a back door, kids’ bikes, a watering can… How do people live? How do they cope with their dreams, losses? How do they love? Her mind collapsing, doubt tumbling through her, questions jostling, questions that mustn’t be asked, that have no answers, questions that break, annihilate. What am I? Where am I going? I don’t know. I don’t know anything, I don’t know…suddenly she’s crying.
Woof’s writing is exquisite. Accessible, beautiful. She flips effortlessly between characters but because Ursula and Jerry’s love is so real, the reader barely skips a beat. They each have their own tone, class warrior Jerry becomes what he most maligned; free spirit Ursula finds herself in a unique understanding of the world. There is so much to love here, and not much to dislike. How would I improve it? Some of the most climactic scenes, written as they are from Ursula’s untethered perspective, are difficult to follow. I became a little bored of Jerry’s political life. But honestly, I didn’t care. I had to keep reading because Woof needed me to understand this story. And I think I did. It will stay with me. I hope you try it. I hope you understand it too.
The Lightning Tree, Emily Woof: five stars. And a few tears.
Read it when: you’re not sure what anything means anymore. It’s going to be okay.