I picked up this book after browsing the Waterstones website for new books to add to my to-read list (as if it needs to get any longer!) The premise sounded intriguing – the novella follows Bilodo, a young man who leads a quiet and solitary life and enjoys his work as a postman. Perhaps what he enjoys most about his work is the opportunity to open other people’s letters and imagine their lives. He is particularly enchanted by the correspondence between Gaston and Ségolène, each letter comprising of a single haiku. As he reads more of their letters Bilodo begins to fall in love with Ségolène and he treasures each time her poems arrive in the mail room. One day on his round, Bilodo witnesses Gaston rushing to post his next haiku to Ségolène when he is struck by a car and killed. Bilodo seizes this opportunity and assumes the identity of Gaston, continuing to write to Ségolène so she doesn’t disappear from his life.
This book started off quite promising for me. I was interested in where this plot could go, so perhaps it was my expectations which let me down rather than the book itself. The novella follows Bilodo’s tragic, and often slightly farcical, life but I felt his character to be quite flat. I didn’t warm to him; I felt distanced from him and I couldn’t always sympathise or understand his decisions.
This short book raises interesting questions of identity – Bilodo writes to Ségolène under the name of Gaston and, in trying to perfectly emulate him so as not to arouse suspicion, he begins to live life as Gaston did. The two men blur into one. On this theme, the novella is a clever one, particularly in terms of its structure and ending. But the ending is a surprising one and, in some ways, doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. The novella starts off as realistic and then subtly shifts into something else which is difficult to categorise – this isn’t necessarily a fault, but it felt a little out of place here.
I admire the poetry in this book, with Thériault doing a good job of charting Bilodo’s transition from someone who doesn’t write poetry to someone who can write beautiful haikus. The translation is a good one too, particularly with the poetry that is interspersed throughout the book.
I didn’t overly enjoy this book and it left little impression on me but I’m finding it difficult to pinpoint why. Perhaps it was that Bilodo’s character felt flat and lifeless to me; perhaps it was that the plot didn’t capture my imagination in reality as much as it did initially when I read the blurb. This isn’t a bad book – it’s well written and has an interesting plot – it just wasn’t the right book for me.