The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen (Penguin Michael Joseph July 2018)
Blog post by Rachel Knightley
When I began studying creative writing, omniscience was often spoken of as having fallen out of fashion in literature right alongside society’s belief in divine interventionism. If God didn’t choose to pop into all of our heads and lives, without generally dropping off a whisper of advice or a nudge of help, why would authors bother with their own characters? The subjective, first/third-limited point of view was more “real” to the human experience as we had grown to understand it, intellectually and emotionally. “I” live my life, “s/he” lives her/his life. We each have one and can only interpret what our five (arguably six) senses offer us as to what’s going on in a head other than our own. First and third-limited points of view also avoided the dangers of “seasickness”, where the reader is made dizzy by jumps from head to head, never getting as deep into any point of view as if they were there to stay, and barely taking in half the information they would if sitting comfortably in one head.
Yet omniscience keeps our sympathy. It has found itself a place in the modern viewpoint that is not the colder, disinterested or separated one it seemed to be in relation to the warmer, more human first and limited-third. It not only survives but seems to be rising with our belief in the individual, our age’s growing interest in the subjective. In jumping from head to head, showing the different sides to personal conflicts, omniscience can remind us that most important of creative writing (and life) lessons, not to simplify or patronise your characters into two-dimensional goodies and baddies. Our fiction, like our impressions of our supporting casts in our own lives, needs to accept everyone has their motivations, memories, insecurities and associations. We each have our own version of events. A sense of reality requires a sense of empathy.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf, Helen Cullen’s debut novel for the Michael Joseph imprint of Penguin, offers this in fascinating richness. William works in the Dead Letters depot of the postal service, researching and – where possible – delivering potentially life-changing messages to their intended recipients, reconnecting people sometimes with each other, sometimes with themselves. We naturally leave his point of view to swim in the lives of the letters, each new voice its own island of deeply affecting reality. We then leave William’s point of view for a greater jump: to his wife, Clare. The pair met at a gently and beautifully depicted book club organised and attended at first just by William, until he was joined by Clare. Their relationship continued as this shy, awkward, mutually-analysing club for two but has come off its rails as both disappoint and fail to communicate with each other. When a trail of letters to ‘My great love’, knowingly addressed to a stranger, start to materialise in William’s work life, they bring with them the sense of tangible alternate realities for both William and Clare. The story follows them as they vacillate over whether they can find the lives and selves they lost, together or apart.
The joy and magic of letter-writing, the specificity of the best words in the best order, is accessible on paper and inaccessible in the speed and immediacy of conversation. That’s why we build into written dialogue the everyday omissions, false starts and subtext that mark our genuine, direct attempts to connect in person through words. Usually it’s this superficial appearance of triviality that brings the depth and reality of human interaction. Helen Cullen has something different, offering a really intriguing journey in what could be the opposite direction: not only are we offered omniscient cracks of light into other times and connections the viewpoint characters are not privy to; the characters can explore their thoughts with wall-to-wall eloquence, quietly reminiscent of early James Woods’ philosophy through fiction. It’s a beautiful, moving read and a rich, detailed world. The traumas and templates of early life leading to someone becoming so desperate not to emulate the mistakes of a parent as to distance their own loved-ones just as harshly is particularly perceptive and movingly drawn. I am offering a free Green Ink Writers’ Gym workshop* to the first person to email me with the misquoted Bowie title before 1 August (clue: it was a cover) but I’m only doing that because it’s a book you should read and I’m glad to give you an extra nudge in its direction. The music and pleasure of words for words’ sake is not precisely our world, but the level of empathy it allows for means it might just be a better one.
* Be the first person to answer this question to claim a free creative writing workshop with Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones Piccadilly, Sonny’s Kitchen Barnes or the Barbican Library: email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer and teacher. Her short stories have previously won the ‘Promis' Prize for Children’s Fiction and first prize in Writers’ Forum’s fiction competition. Her next short story, 'Before I Walked Away', will be published in August 2018, in Uncertainties III by Swan River Press. She is completing her PhD novel in 2019. Rachel's Green Ink Writers’ Gym workshops are resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, Sonny’s Kitchen and the Barbican Library. A former full-time copywriter and editor, she now teaches and edits from her bases in London W5 and SW15. Say hello or find out more at www.rachelknightley.com and www.greeninkwritersgym.com