Book review: The Lost Letters Of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen

In a world of instant messaging, emails and social media, it is refreshing to come across a novel about that most old-fashioned of communication methods: letter writing. William Woolf has what seems to be the best job in the world: he works at the Dead Letters Depot, where he dedicates his life to reuniting letters and parcels that do not have a proper address with their intended recipients.

Helen Cullen PIC: Demian Wieland
Helen Cullen PIC: Demian Wieland

Part private detective, part post worker, he reads the contents of the missives and tries to find clues as to who they could possibly be for – and delivers them accordingly. However, uncovering the identity of one correspondent becomes a personal quest when he receives a series of letters dedicated to “My One Great Love” – a soulmate whom the author has not yet met – and becomes intrigued.

This debut novel from Irish writer Helen Cullen has a whimsical premise which enchants and captivates, yet it is grounded in frank and at times painfully accurate realism.

The author’s description of the deterioration of 36-year-old William’s relationship with his wife, Clare – “Their youth had fallen between the floorboards of their flat while they were looking elsewhere” – is honest yet lyrical, while both characters are drawn with equal sympathy.

Clare, while initially perhaps the less likeable character, with her cut-throat corporate law career and the initial appearance that she is less “fun” than her laid-back husband, is easier to understand when we hear not only of her troubled background, but of William’s own weaknesses and failures which have helped carry them to this point.

The light-hearted scenes between William and his co-workers – especially the battles over certain letters with Marjorie – offer comic relief to William and Clare’s fractured home life. Most office workers will relate to Marjorie’s irritating habits, especially her tendency to insist on them leaving the office together, then delaying to pop to the “little girls’ room”, collect her lunchbox and “turn the coffee shop sign she hung over her desk from OPEN to CLOSED”.

“As if any work happened when she was ‘open’,” William grumbles.

William’s attempts to find the author of the mystery letters sometimes border on the implausible, for example, when he turns up at the restaurant the correspondent mentions she is visiting “tonight”, in a letter which was presumably sent days earlier. Unsurprisingly, that particular outing does not result in him managing to track her down. However, it is easy to forgive Cullen a few slips of poetic licence and lose yourself in the whimsy.

The Lost Letters Of William Woolf, by Helen Cullen, Michael Joseph, £12.99