I’m placing some big ticks against Yvette Walker’s Epistolary take on Love.
The stories and their layers
There are three main stories, told through letters between couples.
Dmitri and Caithleen write daily throughout 1969 (despite living in the same house), following the news that Dmitri is dying. It is fascinating to read a simple domestic scene from two differing perspectives.
Louise (Lou) and Grace are in Western Australia in 2011 (at least Grace is there, while Lou is hotel-hopping her way around the globe as publicist to the hugely successful entertainer Stow, with her BlackBerry ‘as faithful as Ulysses’ dog’ (29)). Their relationship is floundering, perhaps lost in the comfort of years and the tyranny of distance.
In 1948, John writes to his dead lover David (an artist). I felt a profound sadness each time I reached the end of one of John’s letters, knowing there was no letter to be returned. At the end of one chapter, John recalls the day he and David witnessed an historic tennis match. ‘You and I, listening in with the rest of the world, we were there with them. We are there still.’ (151)
The Poetic Prose
- ‘The tide ran quicksilver, the fishing boats saluted the bay ahead.’ (1)
- ‘… my hands were locked up, my mind creased, my heart distracted.’ (15)
- ‘…a blue I know now is only possible in Siberia, a blue that is burnt with white.’ (15)
- ‘Death still frightens me the way he did when he first arrived, knocking at our back door like a salesman, his signature bold and flourished on your test results.’ (16)
- The dying Dmitri to Caithleen ‘My love for you is shifting, archiving, preparing to become a memory’. (20)
- John describes his stepmother as ‘a woman with a sternness I hadn’t noticed growing over her heart until it was too late’ (40)
- ‘I have the ghost of you pressing against my ribs like deep water.’ (41)
- Loneliness. Its long white feathers drop and gather around my feet…’ (94)
- John (a doctor) writes of enemy aircraft shifting with ‘anaesthetic slowness’ (95) and of the letters to his lover ‘burning a small surgical hole in the inside pocket’ of his jacket (100)
Pets with Personality
In his opening letter to Caithleen, Dmitri recounts his morning walk with the dog. After the wonderfully named ‘notorious dog’ catches the scent of ducks, Dmitri writes: “I whispered to the dog a small, simple sentence: ‘No, my friend.’ So he bowed his head. The tips of his ears quivered as he ceased his duck poetry”(1). Notorious dog is more than a pet, he forms a link between Caithleen and Dmitri, always there in the background setting the scene: laying on the floor ‘like a Tatar prayer rug’ (5), flicking back his ears in irritation over the uncharacteristic rock ‘n’ roll music, or ‘loiter[ing] in the doorway like an old-fashioned juvenile delinquent’ (112). The notorious dog simply appeared one summer’s day ‘walking slowly up the long drive like a returned solder.’ (13)
Grace and Lou have a pet cat called Crow Bait who misses Lou terribly when she is away. Grace writes: ‘Every morning without fail he comes into the bedroom, head-butts me awake, meowing, and begins his search for you…’(80). Crow Bait twirls around Grace’s feet ‘like a feather duster’ (172).
Art and Music
Dmitri listens to The White Album as he completes his enormous canvas of a ‘thousand shades of white’ (8) and, despite his unconventional reasons for the purchase and his trepidation when first placing it on the turntable, he (and, eventually, the notorious dog) finds much to like in the music.
The great influence on Dmitri as an artist is German-Swiss painter Paul Klee and it is a Paul Klee print that is one of Grace’s favourite possessions. This Paul Klee thread is also woven seamlessly through the story of John and David.
German composer Kurt Weill and Ute Lemper’s interpretation of his work backdrop the coming of age of Grace’s nephew Nate
I have had to be ruthless in my culling of an overly-lengthy, super-effusive draft of this review but then found myself left with one sublime quote that I simply refuse to leave out so I will allow Walker herself to sign off with Caithleen’s words:
‘There’s somewhere, isn’t there, between the bones and the flesh – not quite the mind, not quite the soul, where we keep those feelings we can’t bear to have, but there we must keep them, because they make us who we are.’ (162)
Walker, Yvette. Letters to the End of Love, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, 2013.
ISBN: 978 0 7022 4966 2
Thanks again to ANZ LitLovers (where this review is cross-posted) for the opportunity to review Letters to the End of Love.