Review | The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

More melancholy love story than lost-letter mystery. 3.5/5 stars.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

Thank you to Penguin UK and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.

The blurb: Inside the Dead Letters Depot in East London, William Woolf is one of thirty letter detectives who spend their days solving mysteries: Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.

When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’ his work takes on new meaning. Written by a woman to a soulmate she hasn’t met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn’t know were possible. Soon he begins to wonder: Could William be her great love?

William must follow the clues in Winter’s letters to solve his most important mystery yet: the human heart.

My take:

The premise is possibly the most captivating element of this book: William’s job as a sort of lost letter detective is brilliant. The couple of times he manages to reunite parcels with their intended recipients were the highlights of the story for me. In fact, I could have read an entire book just about his parcel/letter sleuthing! And William’s particular obsession – people who address letters to supernatural entities such as God – was fascinating and a great choice. However, rather than taking centre stage (as I would have liked), the Lost Letter Office is just one backdrop to the over-arching story of William and Clare’s troubled marriage.

I found it to be a quiet, rather melancholy tale. “Quiet” probably because there’s not much talking! Most of the novel happens in Clare and William’s heads (narrated in further-distancing third person). The direct voices come most often in epistolary format (unsurprisingly!), which disembodies them. I think I’m very fond of “talky” books with lots of dialogue and would have liked a little more chatter and slightly less reflection. Of course, the lack of talking does make sense, as we can see one of the main reasons the main relationship has struggled is because communication between husband and wife has broken down, but it doesn’t help to bring the reader closer to the characters.

The central “mystery” of the book – a woman writing to her as yet undiscovered “Great Love” – is good, although I wondered if it was stretched a little thin.

I enjoyed the late 80s/early 90s setting (I wasn’t sure of the exact year, but don’t think it really matters) and thought it was a good choice. I’m not sure the same story would work in a present day setting where the Lost Letter Office employees could Google everything and several of them would be out of work thanks to far fewer people sending proper letters. Indeed, many plot points rely on characters only having landline phones, missing calls and having to rely on answerphone messages.

Overall: an excellent, intriguing concept but the struggling relationship at the heart of the book didn’t interest me as much as the lost letters which could have been the stars of the story.

Claire Huston / Art and Soul



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