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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 brought in its train frustration, red herrings and even ridicule.

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. Read the new version.

‘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 of a podcast by the makers of the award-winning series Criminal available here.

Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Audible Audio Edition

Listening Length: 5 hours and 37 minutes

Version: Unabridged

Publisher: Karen Liebreich

Audible.com Release Date: January 15, 2012

Language: English

ASIN: B006XNA030

Buy audiobook


“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.


Interview with BBC TV News 21 July 2010

Play Video

More Interviews

The Daily Mail, 30 July 2010
View Article 

Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2010
View Article 

International Editions

For all other foreign rights, please contact:
La Nouvelle Agence
7, rue Corneille
75006 Paris
tel : 00 33 1 43 25 85 60

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.’

The bottle and the original letter:


Researching creative non-fiction

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