Some people select their books in bookstores by reading the first page, but for me it’s often the cover, then I open the book randomly and check the quality of the writing. With Yvette Walker’s Letters to the End of Love, however, when I touched the cover I immediately picked it up. It was patterned with stamps and I loved the feel of the perforations, and it was altogether so pretty that I bought it.
Inside, the writing was tight and controlled. Two pairs of lovers write letters to one another: Dmitri and Kathleen, who live in Cork in 1969, and Louise and Grace, who live in Perth in 2011; while John, in Bournemouth in 1948, writes unanswered letters to David. The latter are worth buying the book for alone. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a beautiful evocation of love (with moving sex scenes, too), and the grief that comes from losing it, such as this:
The house felt strange, alien, and as I moved through it, passing your paintings at ever turn, a force began to gather within me, as if the meaning of everything were over and gone. I found myself back in the drawing room. The rain had quietly curled into the ocean for the night. There was, as always, the sound of the sea (196).
The contemporary letters, by contrast, lacked this delicacy. Perhaps it’s simply that Walker evokes the past more skilfully than the present. Grace is a bookseller, and Lou, her partner, travels the world as an assistant to a celebrity. Their relationship is faltering, and Grace writes to Lou as a way of working out what went wrong, and of remembering their history. It’s a nice technique – using letters to pull someone closer – and it’s also used in the letters between Dmitri and Kathleen.
What I liked most about these, as I also appreciated in the John’s letters about the history and ramifications of WW2, was the background of Russia prior to the war, pulled into the text through Dmitri’s brother. There was also loss in these letters – two lodged in the past, and one forthcoming, in the future.
The three strands are tied loosely through a Paul Klee painting, Ad Marginem, but are otherwise thematically linked through the ways in which letters attempt to recover something that is lost, or to cross a distance, whether it’s geographical or psychological, or the distance of death.
I found the book to be fine and distilled, but longed for more movement throughout the three parts. Perhaps the author had aspired to do this by weaving the three narratives among each, but this didn’t really work for me - I sensed they would be more emphatic on their own, as three separate stories. However, even if the book is a a little strained in its quietness, it’s still shot through with gold through the letters from John to David, and other, fine threads such as Klee’s sun, which ‘covered everything in a dark pomegranate light’ (10).
This is my 14th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.