‘Like a Watteau study, Helen Cullen’s warmth for people shimmers from her writing’
Four writers share their perspectives on ‘The Lost Letters of William Woolf’
Helen Cullen: her entire novel is a clever juxtaposition of magic and reality
When was the last time you posted a letter? Can’t remember? No, me either. Nor can I remember working in an office where envelopes, stamps and string were in abundance. But whilst the physicality of William’s Dead Letter Depot felt old-fashioned and slightly fantastical, its emotional throb felt horribly familiar: ‘At the Dead Letters Depot, time defied the laws of physics, speeding faster than light one day, dripping along like a tired old tap another.’
Reading lost letters from such diverse senders as war widows, the discoverer of fossilised whale vomit and Winter, the Irish immigrant who he comes to believe is his ‘one great love’, William reflects, ‘it was easy to be compassionate about people who exist to you only as an abstract idea, as opposed to the physical beings who leave tea stains on your files and choke you with Poison perfume.’
Cullen’s narrative control is such that, just as it seems William has finally come to terms with his ‘tea stain’ reality, he ricochets back towards abstraction, and, with the possibility of complete understanding and connection glimmering between the words of Winter’s letters, it’s easy to see why: “Do you have dreams of somewhere you’ve never been but wish you could go? Is your head full of thoughts that no one has quite the right ears for?” Is this not what we all hope for every time we reach for our phones? William’s search is not only moving and entertaining but, at heart, poignantly contemporary.
Clare Fisher is author of All the Good Things and How the Light Gets In
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a beautifully-written story of love, loss, heartache and thwarted dreams. William is a romantic forced to live in the real world. He would have suited life as a man of letters in the 19th century; instead, he juggles a dead-end job in a dingy office with the demands of a fading relationship, unsympathetic colleagues, and the need to pay the bills.
But from such unpromising surroundings he manages to find a wealth of romance in the day-to-day: by solving the mysteries of unaddressed parcels, by imagining the stories behind missed birthdays and broken hearts and ultimately, by falling in love with the words of an anonymous letter-writer. Winter writes wonderful intense letters to the soulmate she has yet to meet: without a named addressee, they reach William’s desk, where he falls under the spell of her writing and becomes enchanted by the fateful possibility he might be her ‘Great Love’.
The entire novel is a clever juxtaposition of magic and reality: William’s ambition to create a display of Lost Letters is thwarted by his manager’s pragmatic grasp of economics, while the romance of Winter’s letters throw the demands of a long-term relationship into sharp relief. The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a meditation on the power of writing, as well as a lyrical exploration of the things we leave unsaid and of the spaces between lives.
Emma Flint is author of Little Death, longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction, Desmond Elliott Prize and CWA Gold Dagger Award
William Woolf works as a letter detective inside the Dead Letters Depot in east London. He is one of 30 letter detectives. They spend their days solving mysteries, deciphering rain-smudged ink and torn packages, hoping to reunite them with their rightful owners. One particular section of the Lost Letters Depot is the Supernatural Division, which contains letters that are addressed to God and the Saints, letters to Santa and to deceased celebrities from their bereaved fans.
The startling discovery of a midnight blue envelope addressed to “My Great Love” stirs emotions in William that he never thought possible. His marriage is deteriorating, and he wonders could the writer of this letter be his great love?
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a spellbinding novel, compelling, lyrical and deeply moving. Cullen writes with grace and skilfully navigates the complexity of the human heart, carefully portraying believable characters that are true to life. This assured, charming debut is a contemplation on the power of the written word. It is a life-affirming novel that sings to the heart and left me wanting more. This novel is truly unique and enthralling story and is, without a doubt, one of the best books I have read this year.
Caroline Busher is author of The Ghosts of Magnificent Children and The Girl Who Ate The Stars
For a writer, there is something special about fiction which shifts the reader. And with Lost Letters, I was borne gently, firmly, effortlessly into the life and mind of William Woolf. Helen Cullen writes with extraordinary deftness. No decent person wears shoes that whisper, William says to himself. And like a Watteau study, Cullen’s warmth for people shimmers from her writing, as she lays bare dear William, his travails and his flaws, his life and the quest that just may save it. For his is the loneliest bed in London. It is at William’s workplace that mysteries are solved: the getting of lost letters to their rightful owners. Like William’s life, the preponderance of chance weighs against a happy ending for these lost letters. And yet.
I’m especially attuned to authenticity in setting, as a writer of expatriate fiction, about Australia but from London. And William Woolf did it for me. Onto these pages Cullen serves us slivers of William’s world, of London and Dublin, of Devon and Dalston. I saw and heard and smelled these places, walking and driving them just as William does, as he fights, in quiet desperation, to right his life, finding a letter’s rightful home just as he seeks his own. But it’s William above all that I fell for. I cheered him on, this quiet soul, cheered on the lost letters in all of us, hoping, willing that things might be alright in the end, believing, just as William does that John Donne is right: “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”
Joy Rhoades is author of The Woolgrower’s Companion, shortlisted for the 2018 McKitterick Prize and the HWA 2018 Debut Crown
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is October 2018’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Helen Cullen talks to Books Editor Martin Doyle on Friday, October 26th, at 7.30pm, in the Book Centre, as part of the Waterford Writers Weekend curated by Rick O’Shea