‘The Lost Letters of William Woolf’ is a powerful call to slow down
The death-by-a-thousand-paper cuts of William and Clare’s marriage is the highlight
Helen Cullen: her microscopic observation of her characters’ world is almost child-like in its sense of wonder
“There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.”
Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
The book world can be full of strange coincidences. This quotation comes from a forgotten classic from 1938 that belonged to my grandfather: a book packed with words of bookselling and readerly wisdom, and one to which I frequently turn for inspiration. I had never encountered another soul who had heard of the book until it appeared in the hands of the eponymous hero of The Lost Letters of William Woolf: a novel that turned me into one of those grateful recipients.
The setting of Helen Cullen’s debut novel has immediate charm: William works in a Dead Letters Depot, reuniting post that has gone astray with its intended recipients. Yes, there are bills and circulars and pension updates, but William’s pursuits mostly have a far higher purpose. This fabled workplace brings lost wedding photographs to an elderly bride now suffering dementia; it brings reassurance to a man whose wartime rescuer saved his life but in doing so lost a son; even the successful delivery of some fossilised whale-vomit to its intended home strikes a peculiarly delightful note. It has a Supernatural Division (where letters to ‘Elvis, the Tooth Fairy, Yoda, St Anthony’ are housed), and a Seasonal Santa Unit, dedicated to the proper care of children’s Christmas wishes. The fictional depot depicts a world just a little nicer and kinder than our own, but this is tempered by the presence of an array of somewhat frustrating – if affectionately drawn – characters familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with office life. This exploration of an idealised world counterbalanced by the rather more banal details of daily life is echoed throughout the book.
Interwoven with the narrative of letters lost is the story of William and Clare. A lovely if somewhat unexpected courtship between naïve William and charismatic Clare results in a hopeful marriage, which is now slowly crumbling under the weight of the humdrum. Clare is frustrated by William’s lack of ambition and perceived failures (‘You organised your own surprise thirtieth birthday party because you didn’t trust him to get it right’ accuses her sister Flora) and he in turn is bemused by her transition from playful bohemian into a largely humourless career lawyer. Sentence by sentence their connection starts to fail. When William’s attention is caught by a series of lost letters written by a lonely Irish immigrant named Winter addressed only to ‘My Great Love’, the tension between romantic ideals and daily realities becomes stretched to breaking point.
For some, William’s pursuit of Winter might be the appeal of the novel, and certainly for the romantically inclined her letters are rich with longing. ‘The small of my back misses your hand’ she writes, ‘I’m saving my stories for you’. For me, however, Helen Cullen’s writing shines the brightest as she observes the death-by-a-thousand-paper cuts of William and Clare’s marriage. Clare unexpectedly joins a pole dancing class: in reality to help quiet her anxiety over her aging body ‘like a turkey hanging in a butcher’s window’. She hates the class, hates seeing herself in the mirror, and hates even more that she no longer shares the humour of life’s daily humiliations with her husband. William, while mildly threatened, is entranced by the thought of her dancing but his timid expression of interest is taken by Claire as mockery. Misunderstandings and slights that could be remedied by a few simple words become their daily mode of communication while the reader looks on in sympathetic frustration.
In a world of avoided phone calls and instant messaging, The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a powerful call to slow down: to communicate fully and honestly, to listen wholeheartedly, and to observe the beauty around us. Nestled in this novel are rich and colourful details: Cullen’s microscopic observation of her characters’ world is almost child-like in its sense of wonder. The department is stuffed with ‘boxes of buttons, chocolates, photo albums, porcelain tea-cups and saucers, teddy bears, medical samples, seedlings, weapons, lingerie…and books, books, books’. It is a book full of fabrics, vintage detail and splashes of colour: peacock blue cashmere, pearl buttons, a coral-pink mohair sweater, silk butterflies, a turquoise chaise longue, a purple velvet armchair.
Towards the end of the book, William encounters a lost letter to a Godfray (or possibly Gordon or Gerard, the letter is water-stained) containing the gift of a ‘Verbaliser’: a game of words cut from a newspaper, designed to inspire a would-be songwriter (‘snow, polka, paving stones, pumpkin pie, daffodils, anticipation…’). Like the game, this book yearns for its characters to find their most beautiful words, to put them in the right order and to have them understood. In a world of fractured communication, Helen Cullen has stitched together a rather lovely first novel that does just that.
Maria Dickenson is managing director of Dubray Books. 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