I was intrigued by The Lost Letters of William Woolf as soon as I heard about Helen Cullen’s debut novel, and I was delighted to be offered a copy for review by the publisher, Michael Joseph.
I think that the concept behind this novel is an absolutely brilliant one. The idea of the Dead Letters Depot isn’t entirely fictional – there is a department of Royal Mail dedicated to helping mail reach its ultimate destination, or at least returning it to the sender – but Cullen breathes new life into the idea, and I much prefer this fictional version to whatever the reality may be. Those working in the Dead Letters Depot will do their utmost to help mail reach the intended recipient, often using couriers or delivering items by hand in instances of particularly valuable packages where their investigation is successful.
Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.
William Woolf has worked in the Dead Letters Depot for eleven years – a role he finds extremely satisfying, even if his wife, Clare, doesn’t entirely approve. The puzzle of identifying where a letter or parcel was headed, the thrill of being able to deliver lost mail, and the joy of seeing important missives reach their intended recipient is extremely rewarding. But this is one of many things that William and Clare no longer see eye to eye on. Once the happiest of couples, they have drifted apart, without really knowing how or why, and the lack of communication between them exacerbates their problems.
Feeling despondent and worrying incessantly about how things will turn out for him and Clare – will they stay together, does she want something more than he can offer – William discovers the first letter to “My Great Love”, a letter signed “Winter” and written to a soulmate that she hasn’t yet met. And William becomes infatuated with Winter, despite having never met her, and knowing only as much as she shares in her letters. But at the same time, he feels guilty – the very idea of there being someone other than Clare almost more than he can handle. But he pursues Winter, trying to identify her, whilst things with Clare come to a head. It helps that Winter seems to understand him, and her musings touch upon his own situation more than coincidence should allow:
It must be even worse to feel lonely inside a couple than when you’re alone.
I found William and Clare to be an interesting couple, although they are completely at odds with each other. Clare’s childhood was an unhappy one, and she has taken its lessons to heart, wanting to ensure that she doesn’t end up in a similar situation. She is driven, and William’s lack of ambition doesn’t sit well with her – she doesn’t understand why he is content in his job which she seems to see as being beneath him. William, on the other hand, doesn’t see why she has given up on her dreams or why she lets the past haunt her in the way it does, and it’s possible to see how the distance between them has developed, although these situations are never straightforward. I thought it was quite a neat illustration of head vs. heart, in that Clare chose a sensible path, even if it wasn’t what she really wanted to do, whilst William is content in his role, as financially unrewarding as it is.
I’ll admit that I didn’t really like Clare all that much, but I felt a great deal of sympathy for William. He’s far from perfect, but he comes across as being extremely likeable. This was a novel where I wasn’t sure how it would end – it could have gone in multiple directions, and it wasn’t clear which way it would go until the very last pages. I thought that the ending was fantastic, however, and I was pleased that William’s tale came to end as it did.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is an engaging read – the short chapters will make you want to read “just one more”, and it’s so beautifully written. The reader sees the situation predominantly from William’s perspective, although Clare gets her share of chapters giving invaluable insight into both sides of the story. The reader also gets to know Winter through her letters, knowing as much as William does, although it’s hard to engage with someone who we know so little about. This rather unconventional triangle results in a brilliant story, and I loved the exploration of a marriage on the brink, the will they / won’t they reconnect explored through this original tale.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf be published on 12 July by Michael Joseph. Many thanks to the publisher for the early review copy.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐