Rating 4 stars
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is a strange tale, but compelling in its strangeness. Author Denis Thériault’s background in screenwriting enhances the imagery conjured by his words. Each place in the story is like a film set, each character like an actor viewed by an audience.
My best friend lent me the book. She bought it on our trip to Waterstone’s last October, when we luxuriated in looking and touching before breaking for something to eat and then making our final selections. She picked it up because of its cover design, and then in the queue for the till discovered that the author was quoted on the back of another book she was buying. Serendipity, you see.
I chose it for my first official read of 2018 because I hadn’t quite finished 21st-Century Yokel on my return to work and, knowing that I would finish it before my journey home, I didn’t want to take two hefty tomes with me on the bus. So The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman travelled to work with me, too.
As I started to read on my return from work, I was initially plunged into a world that seemed to date from the first half of the 20th century. The narrative style had a similar clipped feeling to novels of the jazz age. And then Call of Duty and Halo were mentioned. Suddenly the book took on a new shape for me. It became the literary equivalent of Jeunet and Caro films. There is a sepia tint around its edges, an old fashioned cut to its cloth.
There’s also a quiet, mildly nightmarish menace to the story. There’s a quote from a review on the back that likens it to Kafka, but it reminded me more of Paul Auster.
Bilodo is the twenty-seven year old titular postman. His life is a ritual of sorting and delivering letters. The stairs he climbs each day to the recipients’ apartments, he calculates, are the equivalent of climbing the Eiffel Tower. This being the era of Halo and Call of Duty, personal letters are a rare occurrence. Bilodo has never received a personal letter, and develops an extra ritual that involves secretly taking such letters home with him, steaming them open to read them, before resealing them for delivery the next day.
Bilodo falls in love with one of the correspondents whose letters he intercepts. She writes haiku to a man on Bilodo’s route. Events conspire to put this original correspondent out of the picture and, as Bilodo grows more obsessed with maintaining the connection with this woman he’s convinced he now loves, a possession of sorts occurs. Bilodo becomes the vehicle for the haiku, absorbing himself in the history and practice of the form, immersing himself in the original correspondent’s life. There were moments when I wondered if this was a ghost story, whether the haiku possessed different people through time in order to find expression. Perhaps haiku, that elegant Japanese form, is a spirit that, lacking a body, passes from person to person, making poets of them, creating a circle, emptying minds so that they can attain enlightenment.
As his story of love between two people who have never met builds in intensity, Thériault plays with the cadences of poetry as a metaphor for the rhythms of making love. Lyricism takes a battering with a crescendo of poems sent by express delivery, and the impulses of desire lead to bold steps on one side, and fear on the other.
As someone who loves haiku, I found making this poetic form the centre of a novel an interesting concept.
It also inspired me to write a haiku to my best friend, which will go in the post tomorrow. We used to send each other haiku on postcards all the time, inspired by this book. It feels like 20 years is a good time to resume the habit.