The Lost Letters of William Woolf is sold on the mystery presented by its Dead Letters Depot, the department of the Royal Mail where its protagonist works trying to find the intended recipients of letters that have been lost in the system through missing postcodes, smudged writing or illegible handwriting. It’s a strong hook – and a unique one too – but Helen Cullen’s debut novel does itself a disservice by playing down some of the other, equally engaging elements of the book.
William Woolf is a letter detective at the Dead Letters Depot in East London, one of a team of thirty who help reunite lost letters and parcels with their owners. Whether it’s a misplaced wedding album being delivered to the bride nearly 50 years later, or a letter from a schoolboy wanting to run away to the circus to escape a bad home life, William comes across any number of situations in his line of work, but nothing interests him more than the Supernatural section. These are the letters that aren’t addressed to people they can be sent to – letters written to God, or to fictional characters, for example – and it’s there that William stumbles across a letter that massively affects him.
Addressed to ‘My Great Love’, this letter is written by a woman who signs off as Winter and pours all of her heart and soul into a letter she hopes will find her soulmate, who she hasn’t met yet. Her letter reaches William when he’s at a crossroads in his own life and Winter’s words stir something in him and get him thinking: could he be Winter’s Great Love? It’s a feeling that grows the more letters he finds and it’s not long before William is following the clues Winter left in her letters as he faces his greatest mystery yet.
Yes, the mystery of Winter’s letters does provide a driving force for the narrative of this novel – you want to find out who Winter is and you want to know if William is her great love at the end of it all – but key to the poignancy of Cullen’s novel is the time at which that letter crosses William’s path in the first place. Its arrival into William’s life comes at a time when his marriage is in crisis, with his wife Clare questioning their relationship, William’s career and their potential future together. The couple has hit their breaking point, reaching the fork in the road that will determine whether they work on their relationship or call time on their years of marriage and start over – and the arrival of Winter’s words leave William with more questions than answers.
“Never had discomfort felt so luxuriant. He closed his eyes and called to mind two letter writers: one, his wife; one, a ghost. Whose call would he answer?”
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is a beautiful novel, more so because at times it feels like a book out of time, capitalising on the nostalgia of a time before smartphones, emails and Google. William Woolf’s world is an analogue one and it romanticises the anticipation, the mystery and excitement about the (arguably) lost art of letter writing. Its late ‘80s/early ‘90s setting necessitates more of an active approach for its protagonist: in order to unravel the clues to Winter’s identity, William has to be on the ground, travelling the streets she’s talked about and visiting shops she’s mentioned, whether he stumbles across an unlikely link in Clovelly or is proactively searching for information in her hometown of Dublin.
It’s fair to say that the novel is strengthened by this legwork, by all the false alarms and the close calls, creating a much more poetic and engaging narrative than if William had plonked what he knew into a search engine and found Winter’s Facebook page in two seconds. But as interesting as this all is, it doesn’t always hit its mark. At times, Lost Letters can go off on a tangent, diverting to read the stories of some lost letter that bear no relevance to the plot or exist for any reason other than to hammer the point home that this is William’s job. Dipping into Clare’s perspective is also an interesting take, but only when used sparingly; a peek inside Clare’s mind to realise she’s not being entirely honest with William is a nice piece of foreshadowing for the reader to be given, but pages of Clare’s reflection on the sad state of her marriage feels a little disjointed when considered with the narrative whole.
It’s not perfect then, but The Lost Letters of a William Woolf is a remarkably refreshing read. From the intriguing premise and the slightly outside-of-contemporary setting to the overarching mystery, there’s a lot about this novel that sets itself apart from others. The more lyrical and reflective writing style won’t be for everyone and the slightly rushed ending may end up disappointing some too, but this novel is certainly an interesting one – and it’s a debut work that marks Helen Cullen as an author worth watching.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf was published by Michael Joseph on 12 July 2018