Disclaimer: An advanced digital copy of this book was given to me by Rare Bird Books in exchange for my honest review. They Call Me Wyatt will be published on June 11th.
Natasha Tynes asks a lot of her readers in her debut novel They Call Me Wyatt. The speculative fiction book is filled with changing timelines, jumping perspectives, switching narratives and futuristic storylines, and requires readers to pay careful attention. While the idea behind the novel is strong and touches on many timely and important topics, the point of They Call Me Wyatt often gets lost in translation.
When 25-year old Jordanian student Siwar is murdered while studying in Maryland, police write the case off as suicide. Three years later Siwar’s conscious awakes in the body of a three-year-old white American boy named Wyatt. Unable to communicate through her new hosts body, Siwar cannot investigate her death or reach out to her friends and family. Years pass and eventually Siwar’s presence begins to fade from Wyatt’s mind. He grows up to become a kind, charming young man with a deep interest in the Middle East. When Wyatt begins dating Siwar’s niece he learns about her death, and begins to investigate the crime to bring her justice and peace she her mind re-awakens within his own.
They Call Me Wyatt flips between several timelines: one in the 1990s as Siwar is growing up in Amman, one in the early 2000s as Siwar awakens within three-year-old Wyatt, and one set several decades into the future when Wyatt begins investigating Siwar’s death. The first two timelines, which made up most of the first half of the book, are fairly easy to follow, and do a good job of setting up the rest of the story. Siwar's early life is the most interesting part of the book, depicting what it's like to be a young girl, then student, then woman in Jordan.
It’s in the third timeline – when Wyatt has grown up and Siwar’s conscious had mostly faded – that problems arise. Tynes uses futuristic technology and frequent cultural references to hammer home the fact that significant time has passed. Dialogue like, “Come on, babes. It’s 2026. Everyone is using Drive-Less. All the statistics showed that they’re safer than a real driver,” feel inauthentic and forced. Mind-reading technology, fictional diseases and artificial-intelligence systems take away from the real human story at the heart of They Call Me Wyatt, and their presence detracts from the story’s core themes.
They Call Me Wyatt touches one some very important topics – immigrant experiences in the United States, racism, classism, violence against women. Tynes has set out to tell a story that spans decades, crosses continents, and convey timely messages, and there are many moments where she successfully explains and explores the experiences her characters face in crossing language and cultural barriers. Siwars’ stories of growing up in Jordan and learning about her sexuality while also trying to cultivate her love and reading and writing are poignant. As a young woman, she is bound by harsh and frustrating rules which, if broken, could result in a lifetime of shame and judgment for her family. But as a teenage girl Siwar desperately wants to explore the world and experience the freedoms of love and intimacy. It’s part of the reason she leaves for the United States.
It’s hard to overlook some of the more confounding aspects of They Call Me Wyatt. The book relies heavily on the idea that a dead person’s mind can survive and be placed in another body. While this isn’t the most far-fetched idea to ever be used in literature, it’s difficult to mesh this science-fiction-esque narrative with the rest of the story. What’s even more troubling is the way Siwar’s mind brutalizes Wyatt’s body, emotions and relationships. Understandably desperate to solve her own murder, Siwar often convinces Wyatt to drink heavily – she is most present in his mind when he is drunk – and ignore the needs of those around him. She even convinced him to date her niece which, if you stop and think about it, has vaguely creep connotations.
They Call Me Wyatt’s ending is clear but unsatisfying. No obvious strings are left hanging, but it doesn’t feel like the right way to cut off Siwar and Wyatt’s stories, especially considering the strangeness of their relationships with one another and the strangeness of the situation in general. Overall it’s a bold debut novel with a strong central idea, but lacks the clarity of writing and compelling enough characters to really pull it off.