‘People walk out on their lives’
The characters in Emma Woolf’s debut novel are as memorable as her great aunt’s, says Peter Gruner
13 September, 2018 — By Peter Gruner
Much of Emma Woolf’s novel, England’s Lane, takes place in Camden, and in particular Belsize Park. Photo: David Venni/Chilli Media
BLOOMSBURY’S famous pioneering author Virginia Woolf would, I suspect, be rather impressed with her great niece Emma’s first novel, England’s Lane.
Like Virginia, Emma Woolf, 38, who grew up in Mornington Crescent, Camden, has an authentic voice and an ability to get beneath the skin of her characters.
Virginia, a founder member of intellectual clique the Bloomsbury Group, was just 13 when her mother died, which sparked a nervous breakdown.
Emma, who lives in Islington, and is a former Times columnist, suffered from anorexia which she wrote about in an honest account in An Apple A Day, back in 2012.
She has also endured her fair share of traumatic experiences, including the loss of an older married lover 15 years ago who took his own life.
Much of the novel’s action takes place in Camden, and in particular Belsize Park, Hampstead, where leading character Lily, 24, is surrounded by “wealthy smugness”.
Depression plays a big part in the book. Emma said: “People get depressed and they can’t cope, or they walk out on their lives.”
Lily is having an affair with her boss, who is twice her age, publishing chief Harry, a married man with two children.
The affair may be wrong but Lily is entranced by Harry, a tall, hale and hearty figure with brown, floppy hair “streaked like a yachtsman”.
Her lover takes pills for a bad back, drinks and smokes far too much, and appears quite happy to cheat on his wife even in his own home. It’s only when Lily has to make a quick retreat from Harry’s large country pad, with the sudden arrival of his wife Pippa, that she begins to realise what she’s embroiled in.
Was she getting in too deep? Was she providing a secret refuge for Harry away from his wife? Would she destroy his family and was he going off the rails?
For his part, Harry is becoming obsessed with Lily and admits that she’s like a drug. He’s never been unfaithful before but now he’s getting home late and missing his two sons’ most important events.
Poor Pippa, who writes about her hurt feelings and suspicions in an anonymous blog, asks if honesty means anything to Harry anymore.
“I am so confused. I can’t work out what’s true and what’s not, why he never seems to want to be here, whether I’m being paranoid, suspicious or a total fool.”
Harry is seeing a psychiatrist to cope with his issues. The first half of the book ends with a calamity… but I don’t want to spoil the story.
Emma said: “It’s interesting that often men are almost forgiven and regarded as lotharios for marriage break-ups whereas the mistress is the one who is blamed. But she is not the one breaking her marriage vows.”
We also discover that Lily should have known better about going off with Harry for another reason. Her own father Claude walked out on her mother Celia and children when Lily was a toddler.
In the second half of the book Lily is a single mum and decides to make contact with her father for the first time in 20 years.
Claude has remarried, has stepchildren and divides his time between America and France.
So why did he leave his wife with four young kids? His reply seems a little banal. “I was very depressed,” he says. “I’ve had depression since my late teens. Some days I couldn’t even get out of our bed.”
He explains that his mother died of cancer and he felt he hadn’t said goodbye properly. But he admits he felt he was too young and immature to cope with babies.
When Lily asks why he never came back he replies: “I wanted to. I thought about it constantly. But I felt so ashamed at first, and then it was too late.”
Emma said that at the end of the day she believes no one is really to blame. “We’re all doing our best in life but faced with lots of difficulties. Who are we to judge?”
• England’s Lane. By Emma Woolf, Three Hares, £8.99