Helen Cullen’s novel about relationships real and imagined is adept, but her prose can be inattentive
Book review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf
Helen Cullen’s warm and thoughtful debut novel is concerned with the nature of human connection – with relationships that might flourish through serendipity, be thwarted by happenstance, come to ruin through misapprehension, or remain unrealised by simple misfortune. In exhibiting this interest, it places itself in a literary tradition that one might associate most readily with the fiction of the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries (one thinks of Charles Dickens, of George Eliot, of E M Forster), and with earlier modes of writing about connectedness with which readers may be less familiar. Cullen’s story, for example, carries as an epigraph a line from the 17th century poet and cleric John Donne, which reminds us that “More than kisses, letters mingle souls”.
Cullen evidently chooses these words of Donne’s because her purpose is (as was his) to say something about the role of letter-writing in the forging and the negating of human interaction. This she attempts by offering an account of the events that come to shape the life of William Woolf, who is employed as a kind of sleuth at the Dead Letters Depot of East London. In this establishment Woolf, who is 37 and once planned to write a great novel, spends his days sorting through mountains of parcels, packages and letters that have somehow gone astray. It is his job to unite them with their intended recipients.
While watching Woolf at work we see him handle notes addressed to God asking for death and forgiveness; children’s messages to Santa Claus requesting gifts for Christmas (to these Woolf and his colleagues try diligently to respond); desperate missives from the newly bereaved, seeking communion with the recently dead. These episodes, which Cullen brings to life with brevity and force, are often moving and endearing. And they are richly evocative of a world that is populated by countless questing and restless individuals, each in search of resolution, intimacy, deliverance, contact.
After years spent reflecting on and cherishing these glimpses into alien lives, Woolf eventually comes to experience an epistolary encounter that will propel him on a transformative journey of his own. Delving one day into yet another sack of errant mail, he chances on a letter sent by a woman named Winter (an Irish immigrant) to somebody she addresses only as My Great Love, and whom she has apparently never met. Determined to settle the mystery posed by this discovery, Woolf sets about following the few clues that the document, written in silver ink, will yield. As he does so, Winter’s glittering hand leads him all over London and Dublin, and transports him deep into his own heart – so much so that he will eventually come to wonder if the great love Winter speaks of might be him, and if he might have fallen in love with Winter himself. This element of the novel runs in tandem with a chronicle of the unhappy marriage Woolf shares with Clare, a successful barrister who is frustrated by Woolf’s lack of ambition. When the couple first met at university theirs was a model relationship: communicative, equal, based on friendship and intimacy. Now, in their late thirties, each feels the other has disappeared, and each is burdened (Cullen does not quite put it this way) by an accumulation of internal figurative letters that they are unable to “deliver” to one another.
Instead, they nurse private resentments and suspicions, they snipe, they row. Woolf longs for the woman he knew at university. Clare wishes Woolf would let them use her more substantial salary in order to buy a larger house. Each suspects the other of a kind of infidelity. Cullen handles much of this with acuity and insight, and she is adept at animating the pain and isolation of Woolf and Clare’s secret lives. The story of their failing marriage, however, does not always feel elegantly or fully integrated with that relating to Woolf’s efforts to solve the mystery of Winter. And Cullen’s prose can often be inattentive: “Her stomach was churning”; “their relationship had reached its ultimate crisis point, after so many near-misses”; “he felt like a frightened rabbit.” At one point in the novel we even see Clare “rifling through her briefcase”.
These stale and inert phrases diminish Cullen’s evident ability to bring to the page characters that are particular and fully faceted, and they contribute to a feeling that the book as a whole would benefit from a more concerted engagement with the interaction and the precision of its constituent parts.
At its best, The Lost Letters of William Woolf is an entertaining and enriching novel that is capable of inducing in the reader acute apprehensions of the complexities of our inner lives, and of the inner lives of others. But when it comes to granting a sustained interaction with the hidden lineaments of the human soul, the book feels less like a mingling than a kiss.