Letter in the Bottle

On 30 March 2002 a glass bottle shaped like a tear, containing an unsigned love letter, two curls of hair and a mystery, washed up on an English beach. Karen Liebreich spent the next seven years searching for the author of the letter, in a mad quest that involved coast guards, graphologists, private detectives, psychiatrists and mediums.

Originally published in 2006, Karen’s book was translated into French in 2009. The author of the letter read it, recognised her letter and was both astonished and horrified. After a few months, she agreed to meet with Karen. The Letter in the Bottle finally had a proper ending. 

‘I could not speak to anyone until I’d finished Letter in a Bottle‘

Rachel Johnson

Dramatised for BBC Radio 4 Afternoon play, 11 December 2012 and also the subject in 2018 of a podcast by the makers of the award-winning series Criminal available here.

As haunting as it is elegantly written

This is a curious book about curiosity. On a lonely Kent beach in the winter of 2002, a woman found a message in a bottle, written in French and wrapped carefully round two entwined locks of hair. Intrigued, she sent the letter to Karen Liebreich to translate. The message appeared to be a sort of elegy, a mother’s farewell to a dead son, Maurice, who apparently drowned aged 13. ‘He slipped away from life in an excess of desires, too full of vivid life.’

Both finder and translator, mothers themselves, were disturbed and deeply affected by the eloquence of the writer’s grief, and Liebreich began a quest to seek the truth of what had happened…

This book is in some sense an anti-thriller, exposing the frustrations and inadequacies of even the most sophisticated forensic research. It is also a disturbing book in many ways, not just for the ‘supercharged expressiveness’ of the mother’s anguish (the full French text is given at the end), but for the questions it provokes about our own refusal to confront mortality. It touches on the ambiguities of motherhood, the conflict between the violent profundity of love and the resentments of the quotidian limitations of childrearing, ‘the precious neurons’ wasted on the laundry.

Ms Liebreich is also forced to confront the motivations for her ‘Grail quest’ and question her confidence in her intellectual powers. It is evidence of her powers as a storyteller, however, that none of these concerns intrude heavily on a book which is as haunting as it is elegantly written.

Lisa Hilton, Daily Telegraph 7 May 2006

It’s a wonderful pursuit

The letter itself is very moving and inspires Liebreich to trawl French newspaper archives, searching for a 13-year-old who may, or may not, have drowned, and search for his grieving mother… It may be eccentric to devote such passion to passion, to combine wildly irrational sentimentality with deeply rational research approaches, but it’s a wonderful pursuit nonetheless, to which Liebreich applies a disciplined and logical academic mind.

Francesca Segal, FT Magazine, 11/12–03–2006

The simultaneous equation of love and pain that is being a mother..

I love a good quest and could not speak to anyone until I’d finished Letter in the Bottle. It’s a lucid exposition of the simultaneous equation of love and pain that is being a mother, and moving but not remotely mawkish. Karen Liebreich has bottled this letter perfectly.

Rachel Johnson, author of The Mummy Diaries

Liebreich’s search for the real-life writer is engrossing. The pace and vigour of her pursuit is hugely admirable

Her search is exhaustive and veers from the forensic to the esoteric….Liebreich’s style is not entirely detached, but she maintains a sense of scepticism and manages not to imbue the subject of her investigation with a romanticism that could make her tale maudlin…

There is the allure of a mystery in need of a solution. Even at an apparent low, Liebreich’s search for the real-life writer is engrossing. The pace and vigour of her pursuit is hugely admirable. I won’t give away the ending. [Thank you, Katie…]

Katie Gould, Scotland on Sunday, 26 March 2006

Radio & Podcasts

The Letter in the Bottle has been dramatised as A Bottle on the Shore by John Taylor of The Fiction Factory and was transmitted as a BBC Radio 4 play on 11th December 2012. Starring Stella Gonet, Caroline Loncq and Anton Lesser.

For more information visit the Fiction Factory.

Also and also the subject of a podcast by the makers of the award-winning series Criminal available here.

International Editions

Par une journée d’hiver 2002, une bouteille échoue sur la côte du Kent, en Angleterre. Elle contient une mèche de cheveux et une lettre sans signature, rédigée en français.

Karen Liebreich est partie à la recherche de l’auteur de cette lettre. Une quête incroyable qui a duré sept ans…

‘Une fois ce livre commencé, j’ai été incapable de le lâcher… Pour être tout à fait franche, ce récit m’a envoûtée…’

Marie Darrieussecq

L’auteur de la lettre dans la bouteille se fit connaître après la publication du livre – en fait, après avoir lu le livre elle-même! Donc pour apprendre la fin, et recevoir les nouveaux chapitres en français, veuillez nous contacter. Sur paiement de 3 euros via paypal, vous recevrez directement les derniers chapitres:

Acheter le Livre

Ma vie a commencé avec lui à sa naissance…

Karen Liebreich est anglaise. En 2002, elle a récupéré une bouteille échouée sur une plage du Kent, qui contenait une lettre bouleversante, sans date ni signature, écrite par une Française. Depuis sept ans, elle cherche cette femme et publie demain, en France, « la Lettre dans la bouteille ». Le dernier espoir de la retrouver.

Florence Deguen, Le Parisien, 13 mai 2009

Un message d’amour

Interview from Radio France Inter, 13 May 2009

Karen cherche toujours la femme à la bouteille

Le Parisien, 16 juin 2009

Une Anglaise retrouve sa trace…

Interview on RTL, 12 octobre 2009

La bouteille à la mer

Reportage de 30 minutes de Sonia Kronlund, France Culture, 10 juin 2009

Plaża w hrabstwie Kent, butelka w kształcie łzy, a w środku tajemniczy list. Wbrew pozorom nie jest to historia o piratach, ale fabularyzowane wspomnienie poszukiwań autorki listu – kobiety opłakującej śmierą syna. Karen Liebreich, poruszona jej losem, rozpoczyna regularne śledztwo. Bada dowody materialne, sprawdza statystyki samobójstw, przeszukuje kroniki policyjne i archiwa. Angażuje nawet do współpracy Interpol, wróżkę i prywatnego detektywa. Żadna z osób, którą prosi o pomoc, nie odmawia. Ale czy uda się rozwikłać zagadkę?

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Interview with BBC TV News 21 July 2010.


13th May 2013. Karen Liebreich spoke to the Birkbeck BA in Creative Writing students about the process of researching creative non-fiction.

The bottle and the original letter:

Other Info

Extract from Jean Sprackland’s Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, Jonathan Cape, 2012:

‘In this spirit, a French woman, still grieving hard for the son killed in a road accident twenty-one years ago, wrote an anonymous letter to him, sealed it in a glass bottle and threw it from a cross-Channel ferry. She never really intended it to be found; it was more of a letting go, rather like a scattering of ashes. But her bottle, like a heat seeking missile, made its way straight on to a beach in Kent, and into the hands of a writer, Karen Liebreich, who happens to be fluent in French. It was, of course, irresistible. Liebreich’s book, ‘The Letter in the Bottle’, was published in France, to intense media attention, and before long the mother surfaced, hurt and furious, feeling ‘violated’. How could her private act of grief have ended up being turned into something so public? But that’s the essence of the message in a bottle. Once you lean over the side of the ship and let go, you lose control. It will find its own reader.’

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