Feb 28, 2007

The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear - review

“In Japan, there is a tradition of honouring broken things, things that people have used for many years, in particular belongings that they have worn close to their bodies. It is a pleasing thought that something spiritual might rub off on objects that age with us.”

Kyo Maclear understands the urge to view inanimate objects as talismans, as “memory magnets” that somehow fill in the blanks left by a person’s absence. Such subjective application of meaning supplies each object with “its own genetic code,” investing a great deal of personal importance in items which another person might find to be mere trinkets.

Maclear’s first novel The Letter Opener examines our unconscious attachments to the knick-knacks we hold dear, but her story is not at all a treatise on obsessive behaviour. Rather, the Canadian author is more concerned with craftily unraveling the stories behind our curios, when they are all we have left to hold onto.

Naiko has good reason to ponder the intuitive importance of such artifacts. A sorter in the Undeliverable Mail Office, she is responsible for reuniting missing objects with frantic owners, delving daily into buckets of “things that didn't yield well to friction belts, flat sorters and mechanized claspers…rebel objects that had bobbed away from the mail stream and now required human hands.”

Because of past family mishaps, Naiko has a difficult time in forming personal and lasting relationships, instead comforted by “the chaos and the change” she sees in the constant flow of packages through her workspace. Her closest bond is with her co-worker Andrei, a Romanian refugee who fled the tyranny of the Ceausescu regime with his lover Nicolae. When Andrei suddenly disappears, Naiko is left with nothing of their friendship but transitory memories and the contents of his desk. As she fights against the “alchemy of loss,” searching for clues as to his whereabouts, she begins to examine her own life as well, and begins to question her fixation on the paraphernalia of strangers.

Maclear, a frequent contributor to Canadian culture magazines, writes in a clear, thoughtful style, coolly charting Naiko’s expanding search to encompass decades and continents, all the while revealing the depths of memory we unconsciously associate with simple objects. Andrei’s grandmother, a holocaust survivor, sorts through the personal effects of prisoners at Birkenau, seeing life while surrounded by death. Naiko’s mother, slowly succumbing to senility, compulsively hoards pens, somehow locating “virtue in repossessing the things we call garbage and junk.”

Despite the admirable care Maclear takes in unraveling her plotlines, the result is too lopsided a story to stand. Andrei’s history is far more compelling than Naiko’s, and by comparing their innate similarities, Maclear inadvertently highlights the fact that Naiko is far less intriguing a figure. Her sense of loss is palpable and touching, but Maclear has too much invested in Andrei’s backstory to ever create a similar empathy for Naiko, and the resulting imbalance results in an alternately tender and maddening novel that never quite satisfies.

There is a sublime aspect to humanity’s insistence on infusing the inanimate with the weight of memories, keeping them as repositories of the sum total of a life. Maclear understands this, and it is to her credit that The Letter Opener creates some incisive memories of its own. Unlike the beloved pens of Naiko’s mother, however, the novel is unlikely to become anyone’s long-term treasure.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday, February 25, 2007.

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