Letters to the Lost is a beautiful novel for the upper end of the young adult section. It has a gruesome beginning. Juliet has written a letter to her dead mother, detailing a photo her mother has shared with her, taken by another photographer in a war zone. Juliet’s mother was a photographer as well, and was killed in a car accident returning from one of her regular stints away on an assignment. Juliet used to write letters to her mother when she was alive, and she continues to do so, leaving them at her grave.
Seventeen-year-old Declan is doing community service, mowing the lawns at the cemetery and comes across one of Juliet’s letters. She has written of the agony on the child’s face in the photo and said ‘I know exactly how she feels’. He replies ‘Me too’, and leaves the letter there.
This begins a correspondence between them, where they are able to reveal aspects of themselves with the anonymity provided by not exposing their identities. It shows how people build up facades, hiding their true natures, to protect themselves.
These two young people are struggling with their respective grief, guilt and loss, that no-one else seems to understand, and are able to share a connection in writing.
Declan’s best friend Rev, is an interesting character, providing another layer to the book, with insights into abuse and fostering.
The portrayal of Zoe, Juliet’s mother, is from her daughter’s point of view, and a complex woman is slowly revealed. I loved her when she refused to pull strings for Juliet, saying she needed to earn experience based on her own merit, and was a great role-model for Juliet as a photographer and working woman. But she was away often and the parenting fell on Charles, her father.
The book challenges the assumptions made about people, how we misperceive others based on a set of judgments. It details the stages of grief, anger and self-blame, the turmoil that simmers below the surface, and the importance of communication – bottling it all up doesn’t help. The way that certain people get different treatment is illustrated well, as well as how someone can look beyond the front, without the prejudice, and make a person feel more than what they have been reduced to, based on ‘one snapshot of their lives’.
Ultimately with all of the tragedy it establishes that ‘When everything goes to hell around you, the only way to go is forward’.