March 21, 2008
The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear
After nearly a week of reading through short zippy novels in a flash, there was something meditative about settling down with Kyo Maclear’s first novel The Letter Opener. It’s a slower read, rumination more than narration, quiet in its power, and subtly sharp.
With such an intriguing premise: Naiko works for Canada Post at their Undeliverable Mail Office. Her job is to direct items stranded in transit, where this is possible. Incorrectly addressed envelopes containing school photos, love letters, birthday money. And “the rubble”, items sprung loose from their packaging: “Lesser goods… Boy Scout badges, vacation photos, Magic Markers, teeth moulds. A medical X-ray. A book of Sufi poetry. A Leonard Cohen audio cassette. Nothing was too small to matter to someone, somewhere.”
This emphasis on things comes to link the story’s various threads: the strange disappearance of Naiko’s colleague Andrei, a Romanian refugee; Andrei’s own history and that of his mother, a Holocaust survivor; the story of Naiko’s fractured family, particularly her mother who is in the early stages of Alzeimers Disease; Naiko’s own problems with intimacy, as she navigates her relationship with boyfriend Paolo; even the end of the Cold War. Such a wide range of subject matter, some of it heavy and loaded, but Maclear uses these ideas effectively, in new and intriguing ways– her deftness with facts perhaps making clear her creative origins in non-fiction.
The narrative sounds crowded, but Maclear’s expansive prose creates the effect of ample space. The novel is also carefully structured to accommodate all these threads, which through Naiko’s own perspective are tied more tightly than they seem. And it is through this perspective that we come to understand a twist on the problem of materialism: not that our society cares too much about “things”, but rather we don’t care enough. How much we lose spiritually from failing to invest our objects with proper meaning, and how much we take for granted.
Though of course conclusions are not so straightforward as this– this is rumination after all. The Letter Opener is primarily the story of Naiko’s own self-discovery, as she realizes her constructions of others through their objects tells more about her own self than anybody else’s. And this story is fascinatingly beautiful, a satisfying read.