As I write this, Royal Mail is very much in the news. One of the key reasons being given for its proposed privatisation is that nobody writes letters anymore, and thus the number of items that the postman has to deliver has been gradually dwindling for years. This has got me thinking – when was the last time that I wrote a letter? Certainly I used to quite a lot. As a child I had a couple of pen pals, and when my best friend from school and I both moved away to start university, we went through a phase of writing proper letters to each other (before the inevitable slide into email correspondence as we got busier later on in our respective courses). So my last actual letter must have been written in the late 90s; since then, the post has been for cheques to pay bills (decreasingly so), for the movement of LoveFilm discs, for Christmas cards and to send the odd package. If I, as a former regular writer of letters, haven’t managed to send any this century, it is no wonder that the Royal Mail is struggling for business.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I have forgotten what it is like to receive a letter, however. The experience of finding that someone has taken the time to put pen to paper, buy a stamp and take it to be posted, of opening the envelope and reading their words written in their own hand, is somehow more pleasurable that if you had a quickly typed email from them ping into your inbox. We get lots of email as it takes so little effort to send; it just doesn’t feel as special. It is this specialness of letters that Tom Winter has explored in his debut novel, Lost & Found.
Carol is a middle aged woman who despairs at how her life has turned out. She is married to a dull man who she has never loved and has a daughter who is barely on speaking terms with her, the conception of the latter being the reason for marrying the former. To make things worse, she has a soul destroying job and lives in Croydon, a “grey concrete mess…stripped of hope and worn down” where London crawls into and dies. Carols spends her days fantasising about leaving her husband, and on the day she finally plucks up the courage to do so (taking home his favourite dessert to soften the blow), he drops a bombshell on her that seems to trap her further. Angry, resentful and frustrated, she writes her feelings in a letter addressed to the world at large and posts it, addressed only with a smiley face. Knowing that her brutally honest words will never be read, she feels a catharsis from this process and continues to send her letters out into the world as a way of coping with her messy life.
Albert, meanwhile, is a postman on the verge of retirement, a man about to lose the thing that defines his existence and dreading every day being empty like Sundays. His boss, seemingly at a loss of what to do with someone in this position, offers him a “special” final task – to organise the lost letters room, the final resting place of undeliverable mail. It is while sorting through letters addressed to Santa and God amongst others, that Albert comes across an envelope with a smiley face on it. Intrigued, he opens and reads it, feeling an amazement that the mysterious “C” would write such a thing and set it lose into the world. Feeling slightly guilty, he decides to keep it, and takes the letter home to his lonely flat where he lives with his elderly cat Gloria and the memory of his wife, who died decades earlier. Albert carefully stores the letter away, quietly hoping that whoever C is, she will send more letters his way before Royal Mail succeed in retiring him.
This is an impressive debut. In Lost & Found, Winter has delivered a book that is quirky and charming, and which manages to use something as old fashioned as hand-written letters and have it work perfectly well in a book set in the modern world. The cover of the book hints at something light and possibly romantic, but instead we are given a penetrating glimpse into loneliness, heartache and the iniquities of old age, made all the more real by the dead pan language the book is written in. The characterisation and writing is excellent, and I can forgive the slightly rushed ending because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much. If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, then Lost & Found will surely appeal to you.
Lost & Found by Tom Winter
Published by Corsair, paperback, August 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
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