Likely Stories: The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

Jun 27, 2019

Story of a couple in England who face the unravelling of their marriage.

I'm Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I always look forward to reading the first novel of a new, young writer.  Hellen Cullen wrote her debut novel while in an English novel writing program.  She has an MA in theater studies from the University College Dublin.  She also has a journalism and broadcasting background.  Born in Ireland, she currently lives in London. (more)

The opening paragraph intrigued me immediately.  Cullen wrote, “Lost letters have only one hope for survival.  If they are caught between two worlds, with an unclear destination and no address of senders, the lucky ones are redirected to the Dead Letters Depot in East London for a final chance of redemption.  Inside the damp-rising walls of a converted tea factory, letter detectives spend their days solving mysteries.  Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names: they are all culprits in the occurrence of missed birthdays, unknown test results, bruised hearts, unaccepted prayers.  Instead of longed-for missives, disappointment floods postboxes from Land’s End to Dunnet Head.  Hope fades a little more every day, when doorbells don’t chime, and doormats don’t thud” (11).  I had no clue of what might lie ahead, but I was anxious to find out.

Cullen continues, “People send the strangest paraphernalia through the post: incomprehensible and indefensible, alive and expired.  In fact, it was the dead animals that so frequently found their way to this inner sanctum of the postal system that had inspired the Dead Letters Depot’s name” (12).

Clare and William were married, and the immediate mystery is whether these two will remain wedded.  William loves the dead letter office, while Clare is a respected lawyer on the cusp of becoming a partner.  One day, William opens a letter to try and find its recipient.  The letters are heartfelt, and William becomes obsessed after several letters--with the same envelopes, hand-writing, and pleas for help—and he is determined to find the soul matching the letter.  Cullen writes, “My Great Love, maybe this is the year you will find me.  I hope so.  I have been saving up so many stories to tell you, and I’m worried that if you stay away much longer, they will have all slipped from my memory.  I’ve forgotten so much already.  Are you hiding somewhere?  I wish you would hurry” (43). 

Meanwhile, William is a home-body, while Clare pursues her career.  They seem to be drifting apart.  At a party for Clare’s office shows William as a bit of a wall-flower, while Clare dances with a handsome colleague.  William snaps, and Clare packs a bag and leaves.  She calls him from a distance and asks him not to call her.  William is devastated, and he does not know what to do.  So, he spends his time obsessing over the mysterious writer.  More letters appear, and William finds clues as to her whereabouts: a pub, a restaurant, and clothing store, feed his urgency to learn the identity of his “great love.”  Meanwhile, Clare spends hours fretting over the situation with William, who begins to worry about what might happen if Clare returns home.

This debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Hellen Cullen is a story of love slipping away, while the couple drifts apart.  Its story took me by surprise, because I was torn between rooting for Clare and William in nearly every chapter.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!