I thought I’d start off 2019 with a book review for a book that I really enjoyed as I closed out my reading for 2018. The book is called Dead Letters by Caite-Donlan-Leach. I was surprised to discover that this is a first novel for Caite Dolan-Leach. The depth and richness of the experiences she’s crammed into it certainly belie her age.
What I loved about this books is that it’s rare that I find a book I can comfortably categorize as “literary” AND “brain candy.” These are my favorite kinds of books to discover and are the ones I feel like I can recommend to anyone at any time. Dead Letters is the first book I’ve read in awhile that fits this description. Additionally. I knew within the first two paragraphs that I would love this book. Ava’s voice spoke to me immediately and I would later discover the crackling dialogue and snarky, occasionally morbid humor that’s right up my alley. Basically, It’s a mystery and a dysfunctional family novel (two of my favorite things) all wrapped up into one ball of alcohol-soaked perfection. There is a crime, but it’s not the center of the story. Rather, it’s a device that helps unravel the twisted dynamics of Zelda and Ava’s relationship (and their relationship with their parents), which is what this book is truly about. And I can add it to my list of winning novels that have a “crime that is not the center of the story” (My Sunshine Away, Every Last One, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart).
Dead Letters has almost all of my favorite fiction elements: a perfectly paced plot, a dysfunctional family, a mystery, great writing, snarky humor, and depth. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel as jam packed with elements that are so firmly in my wheelhouse in quite a while.
The dead letters of the title relate to both a series of physical letters and the letters of the alphabet, as Ava Antipova is given the news that her estranged twin sister has died in a fire. Forced to leave her graduate studies in Paris and return to her family’s vineyard in upstate New York, Ava is immediately confronted by the stifling weight of her family’s disintegrating legacy. Whilst she should be grieving her sister’s tragic and untimely demise, Ava can’t shake the feeling that she’s missing something. Zelda always was one for drama and manipulation, and her death is too perfectly set up and presented; all it’s missing is the bow.
“Death by fire was the right death for visionaries and mad women, and Zelda was both. My dark double.”
Waiting for the police to conclude their investigation and officially identify Zelda’s remains, Ava begins her own hunt for answers as she retraces her sister’s final weeks. She discovers a series of hidden clues that indicate the fire was an elaborate ruse and Zelda could still be alive. If A is for Ava and Z is for Zelda, what do the letters in-between stand for? Knowing that the missing letters hold the answer to her twin’s disappearance, Ava embarks on Zelda’s painstakingly planned game and finds herself sucked back into her family’s toxic world.
This is as much a morbid scavenger hunt for readers as it is for Ava. Each new clue leads to more questions that lead to more clues, as Zelda uses her bond with her twin to anticipate each stage of the game. Despite being estranged, Ava and Zelda share a connection born from sharing a womb, but they also share a competitive nature that they’ve always struggled to suppress. Zelda’s final scheme acknowledges the rivalry they tried and failed to avoid as children, each twin believing they know the other one better than they know themselves.
Ava and Zelda are complex characters with ingrained issues transferred from their dysfunctional parents; an emotionally closed father with a carefully constructed façade and a bitter, alcoholic mother who’s withering away as a result of a degenerative disease. The twins are in every way a product of their upbringing and they’re almost compelled to keep making the same mistakes – relying on alcohol and pills to dull the emotional pain and unhappiness.
“I stop in exasperation and almost storm out of the Airstream, fed up with myself and with my sister, filled with that itchy combination of fatigue and anxiety that my entire family produces in me. An allergic reaction for which antihistamines can do nothing. I want a drink.”
Filled with devious deceit and taut twists, Dead Letters wears its literary influences firmly on its sleeve. It has the macabre, melancholy mystery of Edgar Allan Poe and the contemporary domestic thrills of Gillian Flynn that makes you slide to the end of your seat as you read. There’s an almost poetic quality to Dolan-Leach’s writing, as she structures her novel around the alphabet and uses alliteration when speaking from Zelda’s point of view through her letters.
Like the Antipova family itself, Dead Letters is complicated, fascinating and dangerously thrilling. It cleverly plays the two sisters against each other, revealing their weaknesses, fears, loyalties and unstable natures. The cat and mouse game unfolds slowly and effectively, leading up to an end that, whilst a little abrupt after such a long and elaborate build up, is a rewarding payoff for following the letters from A-Z. It’s a compelling psychological mystery that’s difficult to resist.