By: Rachel Wyatt
Coteau Books, September 2010, 268 pp, Paperback $21.00 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Award-winning Victoria author Rachel Wyatt has crafted a sophisticated and captivating novel. While Omar Sharif’s star may have faded somewhat in the last two decades, Wyatt does a great job of contextualizing his enduring appeal to so many people around the world. In a digression, while I would argue that Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago is superior to director David Lean’s very good screen version, without question, the on-screen romance between Sharif and Julie Christie continues to intrigue film aficionados more than forty years later. In her novel, Wyatt manages to infuse humour into several sorrow-filled scenes and none of it is forced. She can boast that rare talent of sensing when her characters would use humour to defuse situations that threaten to become explosions, or at the very least, exceedingly uncomfortable. Furthermore, Wyatt’s ease in representing lasting, mature relationships is excellent and important to the novel’s narrative arch. Aging, lament, sexuality, gender transitioning and loss are some of the major themes in the book. Wyatt’s insights into the human actions and motivations that interact with these themes are profound. The three main characters are believable with their many flaws making them both likeable and easy to champion.
The novel focuses on three women who are of retirement age that decide to tackle a cause that will benefit people in war-torn Afghanistan. The action is set in contemporary Toronto and the narrative is driven by the challenges in navigating the journey in trying to improve the lives of people halfway around the globe. The three main characters, Dorothy, Kate, and Elsie decide to organize a modest charity dinner and this event becomes the focus of the greater part of the novel. The three women find that their naïveté in organizing these types of events, coupled with the amount of follow-up administrative work, can be much more challenging than first conceived. The charity dinner occurs prior to the denouement of the novel and while it serves as its climax, the complex narrative strands that run through the novel are unwound skillfully during the last third of the book when other important events unfold.
Additionally, the title of Wyatt’s book is centred on the fact that one of the three friends, Dorothy Graham, has written private unsent letters for decades to people she admires and others that she hates. Many of the letters are addressed to Omar Sharif. Dorothy has admired him for his looks and worldliness since the 1960s. Throughout the book, the potential publishing of the letters in book form becomes an important issue. The letters are at times poignant, timely in tackling issues such as abortion (one is addressed to Henry Morgentaler), or wickedly humorous at other turns. They are an obvious strength and highlight of the novel.
In this excerpt, Dorothy has written to the reclusive Marlene Dietrich:
Dear Ms. Dietrich,
What was it about you? You were no angel, but you offered heaven to your audience. During the war, when you visited the troops and sang hymns to the transient love of perilous times, you gave those men a pass to take love where they found it. Generals loved you. Corporals loved you. And all ranks in between. You offered hope and the gift of sexual possibility to the soldiers when death might be waiting for them the next week, the next day. And you were rightly honoured for your war efforts. There are statues in public squares to leaders who did much less.
My dad kept an old 78 rpm record of yours in his closet. I found it and your picture when I was clearing out his room in the Home. He didn’t take much with him when he moved from the house, only what was most important.
In that husky voice, whether you were wearing mannish clothes or a clinging silvery gown, you made love to us all when you sang.
Despite the crisp writing, and the important major themes that are broached, there are some drawbacks. Quite simply, there needed to be more letters in the book. They are easily one of the best aspects of the novel, but they are sprinkled sporadically and unevenly throughout the book; while they oscillate between adulation and venomous they are universally interesting. If Wyatt wanted to leave readers wanting to see more of them, then she was successful. Maybe another publication of the letters is forthcoming. Another criticism is that the book is relatively short and yet there are more than a dozen characters that receive considerable treatment. There are moments in the novel that their names, coupled with the intricacies of their specific plotlines, become overwhelming and somewhat confusing to keep straight. Wyatt could have written a longer novel and afforded some of the minor characters more space, or else not have woven quite so many storylines and minor characters together.
The novel’s shortcomings are relatively small and are not debilitating. Letters to Omar is a thoughtful and frank book that demonstrates Wyatt’s ample abilities as a first-rate novelist. The book focuses on the lives of mature women and they are central to the entire book – something not seen nearly enough in contemporary CanLit fiction. But the book is not exclusionary and the overall gender imbalance of the characters is welcomed. The richness of the development of the main characters will make them easy to identify with for all readers. Wyatt discusses some very relevant political and social issues without overwhelming the reader with her personal views. While some of the cultural references will likely appeal to more mature readers, I believe that the book could be read and enjoyed by readers in their late teens and beyond. There is no harm in needing to set aside a novel, Googling a term or individual, or asking someone for help in reference to past popular culture or political history. Celebrity did exist long before the rise of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – amazingly to some of our youngest set. Letters to Omar is a fine novel and I highly recommend it for adult readers of all ages.
Letters to Omar was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.