Quirky but unwieldy ‘letter detective’ story struggles to convince
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