This is a fascinating tale, taking as its starting point a fascinating location – the place where lost letters, those with illegible or incomplete postal addresses, end up.
‘Lost letters have only one hope for survival. If they are caught between two worlds, with an unclear destination and no address of sender, the lucky ones are redirected to the Dead Letters Depot in East London for a final chance of redemption.’
Given that a report, published back in 2001 by the Post Office Users National Council (POUNC), claimed that one million letters a week go missing, this is a rich subject for potential tragedy and resolution. William Woolf is a letter detective, a quiet man whose plans to become a writer have foundered and who has found himself instead drawn to the ‘storytelling, domestic mysteries and the secrets strangers nurse.’ Each lost letter is a puzzle. Sometimes the intended recipient is relatively easy to track down. Sometimes, in ‘exceptional cases’, William will personally deliver lost items himself, ‘out of fear that something so precious may become lost once again.’ The stories of lost items and, sometimes, lost information resurfacing after years are very moving indeed and Cullen’s writing at these points reminded me of Joyce’s Harold Frye and his desire to see his old friend in time. The Lost Letters is a reminder of how important things can be so easily misplaced and, like Harold, William Woolf becomes a hero in his attempts to rescue that which has been lost.
The power of writing to spin new worlds for ourselves, achieved by Cullen herself here in spades, also runs through her story and William becomes increasingly obsessed with a series of lost letters written by ‘Winter’ to a man she addresses as ‘My Great Love’, sealed in midnight blue envelopes, ‘the colour just before navy; the darkest, most mysterious shade on the spectrum.’ William begins to take refuge in his work and his relationship with his wife, Clare, becomes increasingly strained. What follows is a clever story of losses and discoveries, told confidently by this debut author. It also reminded me, rather sadly, of how few letters we now write to those we love. The power of a letter remains a potent force for creating new possibilities, it seems.
My thanks to Michael Joseph books for my review copy.