There’s a certain type of novel that makes you wonder how hard it might have been for the author to say good-bye to her characters once she’s finished writing. In some books, characters stand up and without too many authorial nudges, form an alternate family in which both the writer and her readers find comfort. This is the case with Farzana Doctor’s new novel, Six Metres of Pavement, which tells a story of grief and loss from two points of view. There’s the remorseful voice of Ismail Boxwala, a Toronto city employee who twenty years earlier, made the worst mistake of his life. On a hot summer day, he left his baby daughter Zubi in a parked car, and his forgetfulness cost him the child’s life, his marriage and his reputation in Toronto’s South Asian community. The second strong voice is Celia’s, recently widowed and grieving, left almost destitute and living across the street from Ismail with her daughter and son-in-law.
After Ismail’s tragedy, years pass and he plods along at his job, nudged and chided by his well-off brother Nabil, getting drunk at the local pub and sleeping around. Into his distressing life comes friendship and brief affair with fellow pub-crawler Daphne which ends when they dry out and she comes to realise that she’s gay. At Daphne’s prompting, Ismail ends up in a writing workshop where he meets Fatima, a gay-rights activist whose mortified parents kick her out of the house. When Ismail tries to reason with them on her behalf, the spectre of his past misdeed comes to haunt him. Gradually, Ismail begins to realise that had his daughter lived, she would have been young Fatima’s age, and he sets out to gives her a temporary home while his relationship with widowed Celia begins to show promise.
There’s a lot of action in this book, the pages turn, and it’s to Farzana Doctor’s credit that it’s all believable. These are characters we can root for, who we hope will find happiness as they live on in our minds beyond the novel’s final pages. Yet it has to be said that some strong writing sometimes gets undermined by a tendency to point out the obvious. When Ismail’s ex-wife Rehana brings home a pretty bowl, he mutters, “We have so many bowls, why buy another?” and we get it right away. A man who overlooks small gifts might also get careless about small children. We don’t need to read that he muttered his dismissal “in his characteristically killjoy way.” At other times language is applied like a label, rather than as a way of shaping a character’s individuality. “Sleep deprivation had made her irritable,” says Ismail of his ex-wife, a phrase that could have been said of anyone.
Yet all in all, Six Metres of Pavement is worth your attention. It’s heartfelt work about characters who come to treat their worst scars with due respect and who learn to abide in chosen families who love them. It speaks with a compassionate voice to a truth that surrounds us.
Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor is published in Toronto by Dundurn Press.