The Letter Opener / Kyo Maclear
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2007.
This is a dreamy, introspective book; a story that is being told to us by main character Naiko. She's an employee at the Undeliverable Mail Office of Canada Post -- her job is to try to match up all the missing letters and items that end up in their office with claims that come in to the facility. It's a perfect set-up for musings on identity, how physical objects represent emotions and memories, and on connection. Maclear uses this to play with questions of identity in many different ways: Naiko has a coworker Andrei, who is a refugee from Romania, and we only hear his story as told to Naiko -- it's another distancing, another way of pointing out that much of what we know is a story told by someone, and how reliable are such stories, really? Naiko's mother is also suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, and becomes strongly focused on her collections, the pens and the household items she hoards which hold meaning for her.
Naiko is the main character; all the action, such as it is, revolves around her life and her viewpoint. However, she is quite a passive character, in that she watches and absorbs others' stories, allowing her own life to drift somewhat. When Andrei disappears from work and his home, she puzzles over why and how he would suddenly abandon her. She becomes rather obsessed with this 'missing item' -- as his primary 'listener' she feels she had become a part of his life, and is now adrift. Has she heard everything that he had to say? Was she missing some small clue? This fixation on knowing the truth also plays out in her own story, as she tries to recall all the minute elements of her childhood and her parent's lives, even as her mother forgets. Naiko has a sister, Kana, but Kana is an active, successful, outward looking international journalist -- basically a mirror image of Naiko. Her physical absence and the relationship with Naiko and their mother is touched upon, but there could have been so much more about the siblings -- I felt there were resentments and stories simmering beneath the surface of that relationship.
While the story is very much a Story, being told to us, with the key points of the action happening off stage (so to speak) I found this book satisfying in a meditative way. Naiko seems to want to freeze time long enough to understand, to capture the memories she feels are disappearing. I could relate to that sense of the world moving too fast, the mind lagging behind a bit. Naiko, however, is fixated on physical objects as repositories of a person's stories, of their actual presence in the world.
There are some beautiful phrases, some great characters, a unique and intriguing setting, and lots to think about. There were a few flaws: sometimes the story felt like it was moving a little too slowly or distancing the reader a bit too much, and the character of Naiko's boyfriend was very puzzling to me -- he seems preternaturally patient and sympathetic to his girlfriend's stagnation at one point of her life, and very relaxed about her obsession with another man (Andrei is gay so there is no real sexual tension for him to worry about but still)
Overall, though, I did find this a good read. It is slow, thoughtful and cool in tone, but if you are interested in seeing how physical objects and the many issues of nationality and personal identity intersect, do give this novel a try.
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Kyo Maclear is a visual arts writer and novelist based in Toronto. She was born in London, England and moved to Toronto at the age of four. Kyo holds an Honours B.A. in Fine Art and Art History and an M.A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Toronto. Her short fiction, essays and art criticism have been widely published and anthologized in North America, Europe and Asia/Australia. Her first children’s book, Spork, was published by Kids Can Press in the Fall of 2010. kyomaclearkids.ca