Quirky but un­wieldy ‘let­ter de­tec­tive’ story strug­gles to con­vince

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - JOANNE HAY­DEN

Set in 1990, He­len Cullen’s first book is an al­most-mod­ern take on the epis­to­lary novel. Let­ters drive the plot and dom­i­nate the thoughts of the pro­tag­o­nist, Wil­liam Woolf, a let­ter de­tec­tive who works in the Dead Let­ters De­pot in East Lon­don. A failed writer in a fail­ing mar­riage, Wil­liam goes out of his way to re­unite lost post with its in­tended re­cip­i­ents and through him, Cullen — who is Ir­ish and lives in Lon­don — writes about hope in the face of be­trayal, de­spon­dency and grief.

Her novel could be cat­e­gorised as Up Lit, a newish pub­lish­ing-in­dus­try term that groups to­gether sto­ries that may con­tain el­e­ments of dark­ness but are ul­ti­mately up­lift­ing and re­demp­tive — books like Eleanor Oliphant is Com­pletely Fine by Gail Honey­man and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time.

Th­ese books of­ten fo­cus on un­likely friend­ships or the heal­ing power of com­mu­nity; kind­ness is usu­ally cen­tral, as it is in The Lost Let­ters of Wil­liam Woolf. By day, Wil­liam sorts through the dead let­ters; he delivers wed­ding pho­tos from 1944 to the bride, now non-ver­bal and res­i­dent in a nurs­ing home; he gets in touch with So­cial Ser­vices when he reads a let­ter ad­dressed to “The Ring­mas­ter of the Cir­cus” from a ne­glected 10-year-old boy.

He’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in what he dubs the Su­per­nat­u­ral Di­vi­sion and dreams of com­pil­ing a book of the let­ters sent to Santa, as­sorted saints, TV char­ac­ters, God, Godot and other lit­er­ary char­ac­ters. But he is near­ing a life cri­sis. He once adored his wife, Clare, now a suc­cess­ful lawyer who dis­ap­proves of his ca­reer. Their re­la­tion­ship is in­creas­ingly fraught — he wants chil­dren, she doesn’t — and when he be­gins find­ing let­ters from a woman call­ing her­self Win­ter, Wil­liam won­ders if she, and not Clare, is his one true love. He sets about try­ing to find Win­ter, a cir­cuitous jour­ney full of false leads and co­in­ci­dences that takes him around Lon­don and to parts of Devon and Dublin.

Cullen’s novel has lots of po­ten­tial. The Dead Let­ters De­pot is a fer­tile set­ting, re­plete with odd­i­ties, com­edy and tragedy, and there’s poignancy, as well as dra­matic irony, in the story’s in­tense fo­cus on let­ter writ­ing. Un­like the char­ac­ters, the reader knows that the ac­tiv­ity is on its way to be­com­ing prac­ti­cally ob­so­lete and so the novel oc­cu­pies an in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal space, mak­ing 1990 seem like a long time ago.

Un­for­tu­nately though, de­spite its am­bi­tions, and even when taken on its own quirky terms, it doesn’t quite come to­gether.

Cullen writes from the joint per­spec­tives of Wil­liam and Clare and switch­ing be­tween the two of them — show­ing the break­down of a mar­riage from both sides — is one of her bet­ter de­ci­sions. But, apart from Win­ter, she also in­tro­duces var­i­ous dis­parate char­ac­ters through their let­ters, pre­sum­ably to cre­ate a panoply of voices, a se­ries of per­sonal his­to­ries in minia­ture, win­dows into the range of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

Sadly, too of­ten the let­ters just con­trib­ute to the novel’s un­wield­i­ness

The de­pot is a fer­tile set­ting, re­plete with odd­i­ties, com­edy and tragedy

— and it’s un­wieldy on lots of lev­els, from the plot, to the struc­ture, to the para­graphs.

Sev­eral strands go nowhere, in­clud­ing Wil­liam’s mild flir­ta­tion with an in­tern at work. As well as the let­ter writ­ers, nu­mer­ous other char­ac­ters ap­pear only to dis­ap­pear for­ever. One of the more in­ter­est­ing of them, Wil­liam’s best friend and one-time band­mate Ste­vie, is un­der­used. Ste­vie is com­fort­able with his own lack of ca­reer. He has at­ti­tude and em­pa­thy and seems as though he’ll be fun­da­men­tal to the plot. With Ste­vie, and even more so with Win­ter, Cullen cre­ates ex­pec­ta­tions on the part of the reader and fails to ful­fil them. The end­ing is frus­trat­ingly anti-cli­mac­tic.

It’s partly a ques­tion of edit­ing — per­haps if the novel had been pared back, a tighter, more co­he­sive story could have emerged — but it’s also a ques­tion of tone. Cullen has comic tal­ent and a good eye for the bizarre, but the world she’s try­ing to cre­ate, with its mix­ture of dark­ness, light and sur­re­al­ity doesn’t co­here or con­vince.

There’s too much ex­po­si­tion, too many instances of Wil­liam and Clare psy­cho­analysing them­selves, too much rep­e­ti­tion, too many hap­haz­ard lit­er­ary ref­er­ences. Some­times there are mul­ti­ple rhetor­i­cal ques­tions on the same page. All of this ob­scures both the de­tec­tive story and the story of Wil­liam and Clare and ul­ti­mately risks the reader’s in­vest­ment in the novel.

Cullen: A good eye for the bizarre

FIC­TION The Lost Let­ters of Wil­liam Woolf He­len Cullen Michael Jospeh, hard­back, 336 pages, €13.99

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