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The Late Review: The Eleventh Letter

27th Sep, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published by Dodo Ink in 2016, The Eleventh Letter is the first book by Tom Tomaszewski, a psychotherapist specialising in addiction at a private clinic in central London.

The protagonist of this novel is also a psychotherapist (write what you know). Chris Katiwa is packing up his Harley Street office prior to moving to new premises when he discovers tapes from the 1980s, when he travelled to Italy to interview Louise, a young woman suspected of murdering two friends, Kate and John, who had gone missing. An unexpected snowfall finds him marooned and with Kay, a young woman who he invites in from the street, Chris starts to listen to the tapes and remember what happened all those years ago, with the rest of the book divided between events in the present day (London, 2010) and the past (Pisa, 1986), when a serial killer named the Wolfman was preying on young women..

A word about the book's title, which may stumble into the territory of spoiler - the missing Kate, an academic, was fascinated by the poet Jack France, John's father, and in particular with the book K, a reproduction of ten letters France wrote to a mystery woman, identified only by that initial. Jack France disappeared from the same hotel Kate and John were staying at when they disappeared. Left behind, and found by Louise, is a letter from Jack France addressed to Kate/K, the eleventh letter of the title, while K is also the eleventh letter of the alphabet. It introduces a time slip element to the narrative, though it could also be a red herring, as there are other names in the frame for the mysterious K.

Much of the novel's underlying foundation has to do with Chris' family past, his abusive father who spent time in prison for attacking a young woman, a crime of which he may or may not have been guilty, the victim herself being an unreliable narrator. Throwing a sidelight onto Chris' character are the discussions he has with his supervisor Blanca, her insights into his personality. And although it's pitched ambiguously, there's a supernatural element, with certain characters turning out to be ghosts.

This is a book about which I am in two minds. On the one hand it is compulsively readable, well written and packed with wry observations, and along the way it plays intricate games with time and memory. On the other at the end of the book while I enjoyed the journey I had little to no idea as to what had actually taken place, the meaning and intent behind this string of incidents and events, and was left with a vague feeling of having been short changed by an author who has made ambiguity too much of a virtue. Yes, authors are supposed to know more than they reveal, but here I feel Tomaszewski misjudges how much to share.

Although the events in 1986, particularly the disappearance of Kate and John and their back story, are all fascinating, with some imaginative twists and turns that at times threaten to capsize the plot, I suspect the real focus of the book is meant to be Chris and his troubled family past. And yet, as everything appears to have been revealed to his younger self, why mature Chris twenty four years later is given a spirit/psychological prompt to dig this stuff up again is something that puzzled me. Similarly the whole thing with the Wolfman just seems like window dressing, unless this ruthless serial killer is meant to somehow represent Chris' father. One interpretation that occurred to me, is that the ghosts Chris interacts with are in fact projections of his subconscious, with the cynic in my soul noting that they all end up in bed with him.

A back cover blurb describes the book as 'a ghost story about story as much as about ghosts', adding 'memories are the real spectres of this world, and each of us is haunted', which is fair enough. Chris is in a very real sense haunted by these memories of the past, but in showing that does the book provide anything more concrete for the reader to sink his teeth into? I'm thinking not, so much as I enjoyed it I wasn't really satisfied and felt left with more questions than I started out with, which would be okay if I felt they were anything more than artificialities generated by another. The various elements of the novel were certainly interesting but as far as I could tell they simply didn't add up to anything larger than the sum of their parts. It's an ambitious book, but one that for me failed to achieve whatever aims its author intended.





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