I was prompted to read this exquisite debut novel after it won the WA Premier’s Emerging Writers Award. I was further inspired after meeting its author, the warm and wise Yvette Walker, at a small gathering she held to celebrate her win.
The title of this book is so apt, the story being being told in epistolary form, and about loving relationships that are coming to or have come to an end.
It features the letters between three couples, in three different types of relationships, and living in three different countries and time periods. The common theme is love. Apart from this, the only other common thread is that they all mention the artist Paul Klee, a 20th century modernist, and his painting, ‘Ad Marginem’ (On the Edge), which he painted in 1930.
This painting is of a central dark red sun, with animals and plants scattered around the periphery. I’ve drawn my own conclusions as to why the author chose this painting. I wonder if the sun represents the love theme central to this novel and, just as the sun is essential for animals and plants survival, love is just as central and necessary to our lives.
The first couple readers meet are Dmitri, a Russian painter who is dying, and his wife, Caithleen. They live in Cork, Ireland, in 1969, and although they share a house, they write to each other of the things they cannot say, knowing Dmitri’s death is imminent. They include playful references to the ‘notorious dog’ and Dmitri’s hand drawn stamp and postmark on his letters, as they talk about their forty-year relationship. We learn of their daily routines, Dmitri walking through rainy Cork with the ‘notorious dog,’ and smoking in his studio as he tries to finish his white painting before he dies. Their mutual respect and love is evident, however, one gets the idea that Dmitri hasn’t been the easiest person to live with. Here is Caithleen to Dmitri:
‘I suppose the anger will come once you are gone. I can’t imagine. I am supposed to prepare myself for this after, for years of after. It’s not as though I don’t wish to be alone, some days. Especially when you are overbearing and relentless, your Siberian shadow everywhere, all over Granny’s house. But no, not this final goodbye. My love for you is shifting, archiving, preparing to become a memory.’
The next couple is Grace and Lou, writing to each other in 2011. Grace lives in Perth and works as a bookseller, while her partner, Lou, travels the world. Their relationship is strained, Grace feeling as if it is one-sided, and Lou feeling that Grace’s grief over the death of her brother is a barrier between them. The two women write to each other of their memories and their love, their desire to marry, and the obstacles in their way. Neither are prepared to give up on their relationship just yet:
‘When you are asleep, as I have said before, sometimes when you are asleep I am on the edge of beginning to understand how much I love you because in that early-morning moment there is nothing else to understand. Every other concern is gone, every other motive has disappeared, every other fear is, for now, tucked away in its envelope and I only have one, pure motivation. To be loved.’
The third couple is shown through the sad, unilateral letters of a retired English doctor. He’s writing in Bournemouth in 1948 to his German lover, David, with whom he had a secret relationship until the beginning of World War II. These letters were, for me, the most poignant, as they went unanswered by David who had died after being interred under the Nazis for his homosexuality.
‘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.’
It’s hard to believe that with so many books and poems already written about love, something could be original, yet this is. The writing is poetic but not over done, and never becomes cliché. The research has been meticulous, and the details are evocative so the reader is immersed in the settings, the times, and the stories of each of the couples. It’s made all the more nostalgic because letter writing is increasingly becoming a lost art.
This is a very moving book, exquisitely told, and anyone who has known love will relate.
Letters to the End of Love, by Yvette Walker, University of Queensland Press, 2013 $22.95