Book Review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

The Lost Letters of William WoolfAbout the Book

Lost letters have only one hope for survival . . .

Inside the Dead Letters Depot in East London, William Woolf is one of thirty letter detectives who spend their days solving mysteries: Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.

When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’ his work takes on new meaning. Written by a woman to a soul mate she hasn’t met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn’t know were possible. Soon he begins to wonder: could William be her great love?

William must follow the clues in Winter’s letters to solve his most important mystery yet: the human heart.

Format: Hardcover, ebook, audiobook (336 pp.)    Publisher: Michael Joseph
Published: 12th July 2018                                              Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls.’ John Donne

From the description, I was expecting this book to concentrate a lot more on the attempts of William and his fellow ‘letter detectives’ to reunite the ‘lost letters’ of the title with their intended recipients.  (The one ‘reunion’ we do get to witness, of an object with someone very significant for its previous owner, I found so touching.) Personally, I would also have liked to learn a bit more about William’s colleagues as we get only teasing insights into their own particular, idiosyncratic interests – Trevor and his philately, Marjorie with her lonely hearts, and so on.   I found myself thinking how much easier it would be today with access to the Internet but, as the book is set in 1989, the letter detectives have to rely on telephone directories, other paper-based research methods and not a little gut instinct.  Incidentally, I loved the description of the Dead Letters Depot as ‘this museum of missed messages’.

What I did enjoy was the reminder of a time when people communicated in writing and, from the evidence of some of the lost letters William deals with, weren’t afraid to express their feelings honestly and eloquently.   William himself wonders, ‘How much would be left unsaid if people were devoid of the opportunity that pen and paper offered to speak from a safe distance?’ Really this epitomises the issue at the heart of the problems William and his wife, Clare, are experiencing in their relationship.  I have to say at this point that I thought the way the author explores the ups and downs of their marriage shows great insight and is the real achievement of this book.

It’s a portrait of a marriage that has gone slightly astray between two people who, when it comes to it, still care for each other.  William and Clare have lost the ability to communicate openly and honestly about their feelings, their hopes and ambitions.   Clare recalls, ‘In the past, theirs had been a gentle love, not prone to arguments, accusations, recriminations.’   But now, ‘Their words rushed at each other like foot soldiers, focused only on their own purpose: not to listen, just to be heard.’  William and Clare have allowed the freedom and joy of their early years together – parties, madcap adventures, laughter and shared interests – to be replaced with the dull, drudgery of domestic life: whose turn is it to put out the bins, who was supposed to buy fresh milk, when is that mirror finally going to get put up on the wall?  Those who have been in a relationship for any length of time will probably recognise this (although will hopefully have found ways to overcome it).

William’s discovery of the letters addressed to ‘My Great Love’ really brings home to him the disappointing change in his relationship with Clare.  After all, wasn’t Clare once his ‘Great Love’?  But is she still?  The reader gets a sense that part of the problem may be William is still surprised even after all these years that the beautiful, talented Clare should have chosen him.  Clare’s frustration with their relationship takes her in a different direction fuelled partly by childhood experiences that haunt her, chiefly a fear (without any real evidence to support it) that she will make the same mistakes as her mother.

I loved the concept of the ‘letter detectives’ and, although I didn’t get as much of their detective work as I’d hoped for, I admired the insightful way the author explored the stresses and strains of the relationship between William and Clare.  Although I enjoyed the book, I confess to being left a little perplexed, and slightly let down, by its open-ended conclusion.   I guess it does allow the reader to write their own ending for William and Clare.  I know the one I wanted.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of publishers, Michael Joseph, and NetGalley in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Tender, insightful, emotional

Try something similar…Entanglement by Katy Mahood (read my review here)


Helen CullenAbout the Author

Helen Cullen is an Irish writer living in London. She worked at RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) for seven years before moving to London in 2010. In the UK, Helen established a career as an events and engagement specialist before joining the Google UK marketing team in 2015.

The first draft of her debut novel The Lost Letters of William Woolf was written while completing the Guardian/UEA novel writing programme under the mentorship of Michèle Roberts. Helen holds an M.A. Theatre Studies from UCD and is currently completing an M.A. English Literature at Brunel University.

Helen is now writing full-time and working on her second novel.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

  1. Your description reminds me a little of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. I’ve noticed this novel on Twitter and it was the detective aspect that caught my eye but it sounds as if the publishers may have played that up a bit too much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like most of us had the same thought in thinking that this book would be more about actually finding the rightful owners of all those lost letters. And I’m glad you pointed out the ending because I didn’t get it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

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