JP Donleavy’s A Letter Marked Personal: The letter is an anti-climax, the book a troubling read

Book review: This posthumously-published novel has few redeeming features

JP Dunleavy in 2014. For a book so obsessed with sex, and with women, A Letter Marked Personal knows frighteningly little about them. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

JP Dunleavy in 2014. For a book so obsessed with sex, and with women, A Letter Marked Personal knows frighteningly little about them. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

JP Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man, began this posthumously-published novel in 1999, and completed it in 2007, though it is released by Lilliput for the first time this year. A Letter Marked Personal is a strange beast, hanging as it does on a plot device deployed in the very last pages of the book. It follows lingerie entrepreneur Nathan Johnson, who lives and works in New York, as is conducting an affair-of-the-heart with his young employee, whilst his wife Muriel flits in and out of the narrative. He is a thoroughly unlikeable character, though Donleavy tries often to gesture towards his moral calibre.

The letter of the title arrives with only 20 or so pages of the novel left, but the importance it is given, and the suspense its late appearance creates, sets up a sense of promise that is never quite fulfilled. Without giving any spoilers, the letter is rather an anti-climax, coming a little out of the blue, and though it reflects on the behaviour of the protagonist, it never fully links with the plot of the book as a whole. The other effect of this promised letter is that it also promises a twist, a sudden reversal that might redeem (or at least explain) the misogyny and amorality of the main character.

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