Tag Archives: Emily Woof

About a girl: The Lightning Tree, Emily Woof

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.

lightning treeI 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.

Today in memorable opening paragraphs


Let us start right here, with a man and a woman in bed by the sea. The woman is Ursula. She is thirty-one years old. She and the man are gazing into each other’s eyes, astonished by the love they feel, and as they move together, without speaking, everything around them dissolves; the thin yellow curtains of the bed and breakfast, the polyester sheets, the two white teacups and tiny kettle all fly away to nothing. Ursula sees only this man. She is grateful it is him after all this time, and as they crash on to the shore of each other they touch the earth, the moon and the stars.

It is not possible for you to feel this. All this astonished gazing, sea gushing and planetary union is too much, too intimate, too soon! – but I long to communicate love to you. These pages are so dry, the flat of your reading device so cold! If I could I’d jump out, strike you with the full weight of my arm, make your heart pound, tickle you, caress you, do anything in my power to make you feel it. I want to reveal love in all its forms, in a girl skipping, a boy reading; in a time before Ursula, with a laundry worker singing at her tub, or a woman alone on a hill, where a tree rears up, its roots alive, its branches stripped bare like a claw raking the sky, and in a single moment, she is hollowed to nothing by a blast so bright the world will ever after seem dark to her. I want to show you all this, and more, even the great failure of love, so this is a ‘poor do’ as Mary would say, and we must begin again, not with lovers by the sea, but at the root of the thing, in another time, or perhaps the same one, when Ursula is at the very beginning of herself, under the ash tree in the garden of 35 Eslington Road, Newcastle. She is only six moths old, but already she has done much to be here; existing for billions of years in secret codes, imprinting herself on her infinite family, generation to generation, mud-crawler to bushbaby, hominid warrior all the way to Hubert Tate of Tate’s Laundry, Padiham, waiting until her own double helix clicks into place making all her pasts present. Then the inevitable begins, cells slipping, splitting, silently dividing in the warm darkness, heart pulsing within membrane, the sudden bloom of liver, kidneys, lungs, soft sponges of blood, the astonishing hardening of bone, the skin clouding round, the wild free-fall into senses, briny sweetness, murmurs, muted fireworks, and pushing through unyielding skeleton to the shocking air, into the feel of skin, the smell of milk, and Ursula is suddenly material.

The Lightning Tree, Emily Woof

Wow. I’m finding this series bittersweet at the moment, since I am having such a hard time nailing the opening of my own novel. I don’t know how Woof has done this. I mean, obviously she worked hard and crafted her words carefully and is talented and amazing. But how did she develop a story that could start like this, how were these the words that found their way to the top of the story. Now, having read these two opening paragraphs, I don’t just want to read this novel but everything Woof has ever written and will ever write, ever. What an achievement.


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