I don’t know what came first, love or sadness, they are perfect twin pearls to me.
I am staring at a blank page, trying to figure out what to say about Yvette Walker’s novel about love and loss. I have no idea where to start. I want to say that it has smashed me to pieces but that might make you not want to read it, which would be terrible. For you, I mean.
This novel is beautiful. It’s complicated and simplistic. Frustrating, heartbreaking, sad and joyful in equal measure. It is about three relationships, in different eras, and is told via a series of letters between lovers. Caithleen and Dmitri are living in Cork in 1969. Grace and Louise live together, most of the time, in Perth in 2011. John is grieving the loss of David in 1948. Dmitri has been diagnosed with a heart disease that will kill him. He only hopes that he will live long enough to finish a mammoth white painting, the most challenging he has ever undertaken. Grace is still grieving the loss of her brother Patrick. She writes to her partner Louise, who is a world traveler for her work, to rekindle the closeness in their relationship. To acknowledge they have drifted apart. John is living in Bournemouth, still under wartime rations, and grieves for his partner David who was imprisoned, and died, at Flossenbürg concentration camp because he was gay. Theirs is a holocaust story, fictional but painfully real. Devastating.
This was new for me, this desire to be with someone like this. You asked me why and I asked what did you mean. You said why me. I’d finished my apple by then. I took what was left of the cigarette out of your hand and stubbed it. Then I kissed you, very softly, almost delicately. I said that the answer to that question was the reason I was here, and no doubt I would stay here even when I had the answer. And I kissed you again. On that first afternoon, our first afternoon together, we were only at the beginning, at the beginning of everything, when we hadn’t reached love but the ghost of it was there with us in the room, the third, uninvited guest.
Loosely tied together by threads of love, art and loss, the three stories are woven into a broader context of love that is permissible, love that is not allowed, romantic love, desire, platonic love, motherly love, sisterly love. And loss, so much loss. Is it possible to talk about love without loss? Do we really understand our love for another person before we confront its eventual end? Each of these relationships carry with their own risks. The brutal truth is that lives are lost over love. The novel is about all of these things but it also delves into its varied subject matter so delicately, so artfully, that you hardly realise the story you’re reading is so large. The personal, intimate, characteristics of a single relationship, repeated and echoed a thousand times over, in a wider world fraught with politics, fear and war.
A middle-aged lrs lesbian is supposed to be well adjusted but recently I am young again and uneasy. I was never a natural rebel. This sexuality suits the boundary riders and the misfits and I am neither of those things. When I came out, there I was with the wild crowd and all I wanted was a steady romance and a good strong cup of tea. So much opportunity to be bad and I squandered it. Perhaps it’s only when you have come to this stage of your queer life, the middle, that you realise how fundamental sexuality really is, that it lives beyond the surfaces, beyond the political rhetoric and the street theatre. When you find yourself deeply in love with another woman – well, within that love you find corridors of doubt and fear, a secret homophobia that’s strangely familiar.
My problem with reviewing this novel is that it’s beautiful and painful, and so very honest. Any critique just feels flat. How do you review this? I found the format frustrating after a time, though each of the stories carried their own voice and their own locality. In 2011 Grace starts her letters with “Hey Lou”, a nod to internet colloquialisms that would have been unthinkable to John who begins with “Dearest David”. I was interested in more about each one, though, sometimes I didn’t want to leave one story to visit another. Phenomenally well researched, Walker doesn’t let the dates and facts overtake the tales she wanted to tell. This is a story in which the heart is centre stage, politics, distance, time, war and even death must wait their turn. But they don’t, do they? They never will, damn them.
If I had a thousand years I would need each of them to talk about you, one year for each of your personalities, but without that expanse of time it is too daunting to speak, you are too big, too complicated. Words don’t work. Your heart is trying to burst out of your body, it’s been trying for forty years. I’d like to say I have protected you, but you were never the kind of man who needed anyone’s protection. Your heart is folding into itself like a collapsing tent.
Immediately after I finished reading I gave this book five stars on Goodreads. Then I thought again and took half a star off and I can’t remember why. Possibly because I’m a fickle bitch. Forget the star rating and just read this book. And then keep an eye out for whatever Walker comes out with next.
Letters to the End of Love, Yvette Walker: Four and a half stars. Or maybe more.
Read it if: you need to smash your cynicism into pieces, you need to get your heart beating again, you’re willing to risk crying in public.