Event Magazine Review - Letters to Omar
Reviewed by: Liza Potvin
In Rachel Wyatt's new novel, Letters to Omar, the recently retired Dorothy Graham is also determined to achieve perfection, whether it is through her pastime of penning unsent letters to her hero Omar Sharif, or to others who she imagines deserve either her admiration or her admonition. These letters reveal a well-meaning busybody who might best turn her righteousness and indignation inwardly in self-improvement, rather than inflicting her boundless energy upon improving the world she lives in, with often hilarious results. With no children of her own, she interferes in the lives of the offspring of her friend and her cousin.
Dorothy and her cohorts Kate and Elsie decide to put together a fundraising effort for a charity organization by hosting a dinner in aid of food delivery to remote parts of Afghanistan. The novel is worth reading for the description of this dinner alone, a nightmare of epic proportions. For example, the do-gooders decide that the local homeless people should receive the leftovers at the end of the banquet, a themed meal of goat, baklava and other foods that the women wrongly imagine are Afghani staples. When the homeless men arrive in tattered clothes, the media cameras are turned upon them: 'Dorothy was beside them now. Come right in,' she said. If anything could save the situation, it might be these three ragged intruders. She turned to the guests. These are some of the people we are trying to help.'... At that moment, a man with a camera on his shoulder came in...The camera was turned on the homeless men as the older one said, Who eats this shit?' Act like we're not here, everybody,' the woman said. People began to talk again. Politely they watched and didn't stare as the unexpected guests stood up, each taking a bottle [of wine] from the table, and went out into the street again. There was applause, as if it truly had been a staged scene.
All three of these older women are equally deluded about the nature of love, a theme reflected in the lives of the younger characters as well. Wyatt has a gift for developing characters who use humour to respond to otherwise dire situations. This is one of the strengths the women have developed in old age, along with the wisdom to sustain friendships over a long course. One of Wyatt's perennial ideas is that, no matter how introspective we are, we seldom understand the true nature of our relationships, even those with our oldest and dearest companions. Some of her themes emerge most poignantly through the letters penned by Dorothy (of which we could have had more in the novel). Here, for instance, is how Dorothy sums up her observations in a missive to the Queen: I have to tell you that, wonderful as old friends are, they are not always perfect or even reliable. In fact, they don't always listen.' But it is the company of old friends that provides the pleasure, and most especially the laughter, that allows us to gain perspective on the nature of charity both at home and afar.