(Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021); pbk: £12.99
In the era of the instant communication that comes with the ever-advancing technology, it is easy to forget the art of letter writing where relationships were built—and destroyed—on well-travelled paper. With texting, emails, or messaging through social media, exchange is almost instantaneous; the miles between the conversation matter little in this form. Letters, however, are a somewhat forgotten mode of communication that involves more thought-out conversations, triggering also a certain amount of suspense between delivering and receiving. Jeremy Cooper’s Bolt from the Blue revives the letter as dialogue in capturing the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter.
Ranging over thirty years, Cooper pieces together two lives in under 300 pages entirely in the epistolary form. He provides a distinct voice for both of the women, their letters being miniature snapshots of their complex personalities. Lynn is the daughter, and you immediately hear her youthfulness and naivety through Cooper’s writing. Lynn is an artist and her world revolves around this. Her mother, on the other hand, is comfortable in her small town life and stubborn opinions. Her letters are italicised to highlight her parental tone, the voice of experience rendered in handwriting font. Each of Lynn’s letters are dated, whereas those of her mother’s are not, a comment perhaps on the organisational attitudes of the two and how they differ. Within their decades-long exchange there are times where they iron out the creases in their relationship, and there are other instances where their words burn through the page creating voids between them. For example, in one exchange, Lynn’s mother accuses her daughter of being patronising when talking about art to which Lynn replies: ‘Sorry if that’s how I come across. It’ll probably be a hangover from when I was a teenager, convinced you weren’t in the least bit interested in what I did.’ There is no letter from her mother in response.
Cooper has an alluring way of pulling back from the direct discussion of feelings—which people often do in real life relationships—while still demonstrating the emotions of the characters. His character development is carved into every page though often it is purposefully and cleverly hidden. Often what is left unsaid says more than what is contained in the letters. Questions from the previous letter go unanswered in replies, either on purpose or by mistake due to the time that has passed between responses. It is up to the reader to build the empty space between letters with their imagination when the mother writes, ‘Seriously, you’re writing like a robot. Or to a robot. In some letters I don’t hear you or see myself’; Lynn does not respond to this accusation in her next letter. The characters pick and choose what it is they want to acknowledge and ignore that which they do not.
Bolt from the Blue is what happens when the writer passes the pen to his characters and lets them take control. There is a sense that the characters discover things about themselves in writing the letters that they were previously oblivious of.
Nothing is ever complete, everything always has a version. An illusion to imagine that diligent research and enquiry, about anything or anyone, can produce the whole story. There is no such thing.
It’s not that things are left out in this novel, but rather they are left to the readers imagination, just as the case would be if one discovers a stack of letters. It is up to us to piece together the gaps in between, to figure out how the writers were truly feeling, to create a story that is theirs as well as our own.