I am delighted to be today’s stop on the blogtour for this delightful book.
William Woolf is a letter detective. He’s worked at the Dead Letters Depot in East London for eleven years, one of a team of thirty, dedicated to finding the right home for all the letters and packages that arrive with missing, torn or smudged address labels, wrong destinations, unreadable handwriting. William is one of the most efficient of the detectives, which gives him time to indulge his passion for what they call ‘the Supernatural Division’ – all the letters sent to God, Elvis, Yoda and the like:
These messages in a bottle, trails of bread left in the forest, obsessed William. Who were these believers and how long did they wait for a reply? Was the writing more important than the response? Did the writers tell anyone that they had written these letters? Were they relieved or saddened that their unanswered players had fallen on deaf ears?
For some time, William had wanted to create a volume of these missives for public record. He felt there was a cast of thousands currently speaking into the void but who deserved to be heard.
William is married to Clare, whom he met at university when he tried to start a book group and she was the only person who came. She is a successful barrister; William had planned to be a writer, but ended up at the Dead Letters Depot. They live in a small flat in East London – with Clare’s salary they could afford more, but William has always insisted on paying his half of the mortgage. Clare escapes their small home on a succession of night classes. Their marriage seems to have stalled lately, making them both sad and, uncertain how to rekindle the flame, they end up not talking.
Then on St Valentine’s day, when to colleague Marjorie’s delight, they are overrun by misplaced greetings cards, William happens to pick up an envelope.
…it was midnight blue. The colour just before blue becomes navy; the darkest, most mysterious shade on the spectrum. And his favourite.
The handwriting on the front consisted of curls and spirals, dramatic capitals, carefully crafted lower-case letters, all in a dripping silver ink. There were just three words: ‘My Great Love’. William held the envelope close to examine the grooves in the darkness of the pages, and smelled the faintest trace of vanilla. Something stirred inside him. He ached to open this envelope. Not here, though. He slipped it inside his shirt pocket and felt it radiate hot light through the cotton and on to his bare skin. He had never taken a letter home before.
This letter changes everything, and William has a new obsession. A woman called Winter is writing to a man she hasn’t met yet. William hopes she’ll write again, and she does. He makes sure he gets the letters, which contain small clues about their author, increasingly wondering if he could be her ‘great love’. But what about Clare?
There are echoes of Denis Thériault’s book The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman here, in which Bilodo, a postman, steals letters from a woman called Ségolène in Guadeloupe which consist of haiku. He falls in love with her, and the story turns a little sinister when he takes over replying to them. William doesn’t have the twisted motives of Bilodo though, so in this respect the story more resembles Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s charming The Reader on the 6.27 in which a young man who works at a pulping plant, rescues found pages including the diary of a lonely young woman, Julie, with whom he falls in love. In both of these novels, the protagonists are single, and there is a real danger that their love will be unrequited.
That’s not the case for William though – he has Clare, he has experienced love already. This reminded me of the situation of Fred and Mary in Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, however William and Clare haven’t quite reached the state of living separate lives together that Fred and Mary have, they’re pretty close though.
I couldn’t possibly tell you what happens to William and Clare, or whether William finds Winter, suffice it to say that there is resolution. William and Clare are both drawn very sympathetically, they’re very real characters. Clare is frustrated, William is a dreamer, but you really want them to work things out. There is a lot of heartache along the way, but for the most part, debut author Helen Cullen keeps things light and breezy and the right side of being sentimental. The most heart-warming moments though, are when William undertakes special deliveries, returning precious lost photos and objects to their intended addressees by hand.
Our Royal Mail does have a Dead Letters Depot – officially known as the National Returns Centre in Belfast, where 300 letter detectives work to redirect the lost mail. The service was centralised there back in 1992. This old article from the Guardian tells more about its work – and William’s work is not so different. This is such an engaging novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it. (9/10)
Do see what the other stops on the blog tour thought too.
Source: Own copy – Michael Joseph, 2018, hardback, 328 pages. Now in Penguin paperback.