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Unfaithfully Yours, by Nigel Williams, Corsair, RRP£18.99, 320 pages

The epistolary novel has a long and distinguished history: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) laid down the groundwork; rather more recently the form popped up in Nicola Barker’s eccentric and witty Burley Cross Postbox Theft (2010). One would have imagined that, what with the advent of emails and texts, we would lose such a fine method of dissecting psychologies and telling stories. But, as one of the characters in Nigel Williams’s acutely funny, black-veined novel Unfaithfully Yours observes, email is “on, the whole, a barrier to successful communication”. In letters, points out another, “There is nowhere to hide.” It’s more complicated than this, of course; and Williams succeeds in showing us how difficult it is to pin down anybody’s personality, let alone establish the facts of any event. We’re all unreliable narrators, it seems.

Here, then, are the raging egos, uglinesses and pettinesses of a group of four successful, southwest London suburbanite couples in their sixties, apparently parading their true natures in the form of the old-fashioned letter. This is home territory for Williams, whose books – such as The Wimbledon Poisoner (1990) – enjoyably inject a shot of dark bile beneath the seemingly calm surfaces of Wimbledon and its environs.

There are two central engines to Unfaithfully Yours. The first is that classics teacher Elizabeth Price suspects (quite rightly) her meat-headed barrister husband, Gerald, of adultery; the second is the death, in mysterious circumstances, of Pamela Larner, an awful woman married to another of the circle. Letters are fired off, like missiles, first between Elizabeth and a private detective called Orlando; then between the whole group.

Williams has great fun with the writing tics of his cast. Elizabeth is schoolmistressy (to begin with, at least). Uneducated Mary Dimmock’s prose is spiced with malapropisms and misspellings – “Leduia” for “Leda”; “meulstrom” for “maelstrom” – and end with hilarious postscripts: “We often do it ‘doggy style’,” she writes. Those quotation marks speak for themselves. A repressed homosexual tells of his interest in Amazonian river dolphins, who “have astonishingly lithe, prehensile penises”, which they enjoy inserting into the “blowholes of their male companions. I had occasion to see some footage of two male dolphins indulging in this activity and found it powerfully erotic.”

Everything revolves around uncovering things – sexuality, repressed loves, the murder of Pamela. What Williams is also very good at is showing the real pain of his characters’ lives. They are all in love with the wrong people; they all dream of living differently, yet seem to be trapped by convention and custom. And while the letters do offer a glimpse into their real thoughts, they show how impossible it is for a small group of people to truly understand each other. As the detective observes: “I will never cease to wonder at human beings and how they view each other.”

Unfaithfully Yours is acerbic, amusing, yet with a rich seam of melancholy. Williams understands that the epistolary form is perfect for examining our strange, fluctuating selves. He’s deployed it keenly and successfully – long may it live on.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.