Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

Received from NetGalley for review.

‘Under the bludgeonings of chance/ My head is bloody, but unbowed.’ – from Invictus by W.E. Henley

To say I loved this book would be a grave understatement; it is one of the most superbly crafted books I have read this year and I couldn’t find a thing wrong with it if I tried. I highly doubt it’s perfect, but it was perfect for me and that’s enough. When you have to scrawl ‘ALL THE FEELS’ into your notebook just for some shred of an outlet of the emotions overtaking you, you know you’re feeling everything on a deep level.

Letters to the Lost was not what I expected. Although much of what I read was not a massive surprise – two grieving teens united by anonymity, helping each other, falling for each other – the story was so much deeper than a love story between two suffering people. It speaks of second chances, making your own path, realising you were wrong, realising you can apologise and try again. It is dark and heavy and overwhelming. And it is magnificent. I’m a mess of emotions and the ending all but destroyed me, but I’m so glad I read this book.

The characters are outstanding; they are not all likeable, but they are understandable and I liked how Kemmerer slowly revealed that there was so much more to the characters than meets the eye – they are angry, they are grieving, they are flawed, but it makes them all the more human and relatable. Each one is so well written and relevant to the plot, no one makes an appearance without reason (especially a certain English teacher). The narrative switches between the protagonists, Juliet and Declan, with each chapter beginning with a letter, email, or message, which is a format that I love.

We are first introduced to Juliet who recently lost her photojournalist mother in a hit-and-run. She’s understandably struggling, finding it hard to just get through the day in one piece; her mother was the sun that she orbited around, idolizing her entirely, and the only way she can find any form of relief is by leaving letters at her grave (writing letters to each other was one of their special things):

‘We just thought on paper to each other.’

We are then introduced to Declan who is grieving his little sister, Kirsty, and his father, who is in jail and the reason that Kirsty is dead. Although they share grief they are complete opposites – Juliet is generally a good student and average teenager, whereas Declan is volatile and violent, unable to express his feelings productively, and serving community service at the cemetery where Juliet’s mother is buried. After Declan responds to one of Juliet’s letters the pair begin a tentative friendship, corresponding first through the letters and then by email, all the while not knowing who the other is.

I adored their friendship and how it developed – they begin angry with each other for looking at each other’s words, before realising that there is a comfort in sharing your heartache, and the relationship builds from there. Both are able to express and open themselves in a way they can’t with people they know; anonymity provides them with safety and bravery. The irony is, of course, that they know each other vaguely in real life but can’t stand each other; every interaction is fraught with aggression and snide remarks, with each using the other as an easy target and outlet for their grief and rage, so it’s incredibly interesting seeing how everything unfolds.

“Am I stronger than you thought I was?”
“You’re exactly as strong as I thought you were.”

This book deserves to be read by everyone; it is so well written and makes for an incredibly powerful and moving reading experience. It’s one of those books that I felt down to my bones, and I know that it will stick with me for a very long time. I know that it’s something special, and I love that one of the most overwhelming messages I got from it was this: people cannot often be judged by what you’ve heard or think you already know about them, there’s often a lot more going on beneath the surface, and sometimes all that person needs is someone unwilling to let them be anything other than the best version of themselves.

Read: April 4th-5th 2017

5/5 stars

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