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The Letter Opener

by Kyo Maclear

Do you remember the Dead Letter Office? Apparently it changed its name in 1954 to the Undeliverable Mail Office – the UMO – which was thought to be a little less depressing, though the meaning remained the same. I had a strong mental image of this gloomy place when I was a child, and it turns out to have been remarkably similar to the drafty, echoey, bureaucratic cul-de-sac that Kyo Maclear has created as the setting for her first novel.

Naiko, a 30-year-old Canadian of Japanese-Scottish heritage, works at the UMO in Toronto. While other employees handle things like “misdirected mail,” “intact parcels,” and “major valuables” such as birthday cheques gone astray, Naiko is responsible for “rubble,” i.e., all the stuff that has spilled out of burst envelopes and overloaded boxes, the “rebel objects that had bobbed away from the mail stream and now required human hands.” Her day is spent trying to match up querulous letters of complaint or supplication with the junk that gets delivered to her desk, such as “Boy Scout badges, vacation photos, Magic Markers, teeth moulds….” Not surprisingly, Naiko has an overwhelming obsession with objects, so much so that she doesn’t want her boyfriend to move in with her. (“It did not please me in the least to imagine my personal effects being joined with Paolo’s.”)

The point about the UMO, as Maclear makes somewhat laboriously clear, is that it can be used as a metaphor for all sorts of things in modern life: crossed wires and miscommunications between people, the lost heritage of persecuted groups such as the Jews in Europe or the ethnic Japanese in Canada, the lost memories of aging parents, and the sudden, physical, never-explained disappearance of individuals. While the novel’s conceit smacks too much of writing school, Maclear does have a very felicitous way with words that makes the book a compelling read.

Some of the best moments are created by the use of parallels and echoes. Andrei, a Romanian refugee who comes to work at the UMO and then mysteriously disappears, turns out to be the son of a Jewish woman who had been transported to Ravensbrück as a girl during the war. The mother’s fellow villagers, believing that Jews hid their valuables underground before being taken away, came to dig up the family’s garden while she was in the camp. Many years later, and back in the same house, she learns that Andrei is homosexual, a crime roughly equal to being Jewish in the eyes of Romanian society, and so she buries her son’s letters from his lover in the garden.

In another corner of the plot, Naiko tries to work out her relationship to her Scottish geographer father, who left the family when she was 10. Her attachment to things stems partly from his disappearance. While his voice inside her head says, “Don’t be too possessive. Don’t depend on things, or others, unduly,” her own experience tells her that “your furniture and belongings will remain a beacon of reliability.” Over the course of the novel, Naiko comes to believe that modern civilization is not materialistic enough, in the sense that “we are quick to discard one possession to chase something else more tempting.”

Quite often the book feels more like a meditation on thingness than a novel. Naiko’s long-suffering boyfriend is barely fleshed out, and seems unrealistically tolerant of some of Naiko’s weirder notions about relationships. Her hostility toward her high-flying journalist sister, Kana, who is as outgoing as Naiko is hermetic, remains underexplored as well.

And yet there are piercing insights here, particularly about the nature of the immigrant experience in Canada. Naiko’s Lebanese colleague at the UMO piles sugar and cardamom into his bland Canadian coffee, trying to make it more “Middle Eastern”; the refugees in a Toronto settlement house give each other Christmas presents such as clear plastic cubes with Canadian coins embedded inside. Andrei, hiding dark secrets about his escape from Romania, stands transfixed in a Loblaws parking lot watching “Canadians” load grocery bags into the back of their Jeeps. He thinks, “Such purposeful people – had they ever felt at odds with the world? Had their own actions ever horrified them?”

In the end, Naiko’s take on life is more optimistic than I have perhaps conveyed here. She believes in constancy and devotion, even to those who may inexplicably disappear, and she derives sustenance from her trust that even though the ground she stands on may shift, it will endure, “and on it things will grow and walk and stomp and live.” There is resonance and thoughtfulness to Maclear’s writing, and in her visceral championing of the lost, the forgotten, the quiet, and even the shabby.