The Winnipeg Review - Letters to Omar
Reviewed by: Sharon Chisvin
Prolific author Rachel Wyatt's seventh novel, Letters to Omar, is the account of three older women trying to make a difference in the world. Like much of Wyatt's previous writing, including dozens of short stories, radio dramas, and stage plays, the narrative is set in contemporary Toronto - Wyatt's adopted home when she first emigrated from England to Canada more than 50 years ago - and is the simply told story of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Again, like much of Wyatt's earlier work, it is a story about dislocation, maturity and degrees of despair, and laced with equal measures of humour, wit, irony and insight.
Dorothy Graham is the force at the centre of the novel. Recently retired, childless, thrice married and now single, Dorothy spends her days meddling in the lives of others, fighting to keep her modest home out of the hands of developers, and indulging in her lifelong hobby of writing letters she never sends to famous people. This correspondence includes letters to the Pope, Kofi Annan, Oprah, Henry Morgentaler, and most frequently, Omar Sharif, the handsome Egyptian actor who starred in Dr. Zhivago.
Feeling guilty about encouraging her cousin's grandson to volunteer for a charitable agency in war-torn Afghanistan, Dorothy gathers together the young man's grandmother, Kate, and their mutual best friend, Elsie, and tries to convince them that they too should be doing something to improve the world.
"It wasn't enough to simply sit around drinking coffee, and saying did you see the news last night, isn't it terrible, the world's a mess," she tells them.
Like Dorothy, both Kate and Elsie are feeling a little restless. Kate has been abandoned by her husband in favour of a younger woman, and also has recently been forced into retirement, unhappily leaving behind the university where for many years she was "the busy academic, writing, talking, involved."
Elsie, more than the other two, has enjoyed a life of leisure and the stability of a seemingly long and respectable marriage. She too has her worries though, among them a middle-aged daughter with infertility issues and another daughter who disappeared, leaving behind both a marriage and a child.
After tossing around a few ideas, Dorthy, Elsie and Kate decide that they will hold a series of fundraising dinners in support of a school in an unnamed village in Afghanistan, "a country walked over by invaders, the uninvited. A place where even the stones were never allowed to rest."
The women's good intentions, however, quickly turn into a comedy of errors. The inaugural dinner, poorly planned and poorly executed, is a disaster, raising little money and leaving the women feeling foolish, ineffective, and older than they would like to admit.
At the same time, a host of eccentric family members and friends come and go from the women's lives, among them a mysterious publisher who promises to compile Dorothy's letters into book form, Elsie's missing daughter Alice who returns home as Alec, and Alice/Alec's daughter Elvira, destined to "walk through life searching for secure love. The abandoned child in the forest."
Rather than enhance the narrative, however, these secondary personalities detract from it. This is not because they are not interesting, but rather because they are. There are too many of them and so none of them receive the attention that they deserve. Their eccentricities serve only as a tease.
This complaint aside, Letters to Omar is an engaging work of fiction, cleverly constructed and sharply paced. The letters themselves, interspersed throughout the narrative, invite readers to glimpse Dorothy beyond, or before, her golden years, and her anxieties, quirkiness and bumbling good intentions, to reveal an intelligent, interested and interesting woman who cares about the world she lives in.
While the letters date back many years, they do not bog the narrative down. Instead, the story easily glides forward, often even jumping ahead without Wyatt unnecessarily spelling out every passage of time or turn of events. The result is a novel that remains engaging, refreshing, and alluring, in spite of being rooted in the most ordinary, flawed and human lives.
By turns forgetful, impulsive, impatient, envious and petty, Dorothy, Elsie and Kate, are consistently good to one another. Life may have passed them by, but they continue to share a remarkable friendship and a genuine and enviable form of love.
Ultimately, that is what this novel is about - lasting friendships, growing old, living a life that matters, and leaving behind some kind of a legacy, even if it is a box full of letters that were never sent, never read, and will never be published.
Rachel Wyatt at 83, clearly understands aging, love, and friendship. Of course, as a recipient of the Order of Canada and other honours, she does not have to worry about her own legacy, burnished as it is by this latest novel.