On the back cover of Six Metres of Pavement, Farzana Doctor’s face glances gimlet-eyed at the camera, her lips pursed as if harbouring some secret wisdom. The secret is now out. Doctor’s second novel is an assured, polyamorous page-turner. It stealthily enters the subconscious and assembles a vision of the boundlessness of the human heart.
The story integrates the lives and losses of diverse worlds, exactly the sorts of intersecting urban worlds — sexual, cultural, racial — that infuse Doctor’s Toronto setting. We begin with Ismail, a midlife former husband and father raised in India but long ensconced in the pan-ethnic masala of his downtown neighbourhood. Ismail lives alone in the house he bought out from his ex-wife after their divorce, the split brought on by the incident that long ago made him a father without a child.
Eighteen years ago, sleep-deprived and distracted by a new wrinkle in his daily routine, Ismail dropped his wife at work and headed as usual to his own office, forgetting that his infant daughter was sound asleep in the back seat. The car sat untouched for the next four hours, parked on the street on a scorching August day. The child died of heat stroke, Ismail narrowly avoiding prosecution.
It’s a stunningly risky opener for any novel, but Farzana Doctor manages it with impressive and moving subtlety, dovetailing Ismail’s tormenting memories (never laid to rest) with his tentative, long-delayed steps toward rejoining the world — meaning, really, the world of people merely pummelled by fate instead of crushed.
Ismail drinks too much; he can put away five or six beers a night, most nights, with his good friend and occasional sex partner Daphne. After they both join AA, Daphne announces one night that she’s finally acknowledging her lesbianism. Doctor doesn’t undermine our sympathy for Ismail with a display of homophobia. He is just calmly, understandably indignant that he has been led astray. They work it out, and Daphne fades from the picture, while other relationships begin to break through the barriers of self-censure and reclusiveness that guard Ismail’s bruised psyche.
Celia, a prematurely widowed Portuguese neighbour, enters. We alternate between her and Ismail’s viewpoints as she launches some cautious forays out of the black-clad show of grief imposed on her by her culture. The two sorrowing neighbours begin to quietly intrigue each other.
Meanwhile, a powerful catalyst emerges: Fatima, a young bisexual fellow student in a creative-writing class Ismail signed up for in hopes of exorcising his demons. She takes a liking to Ismail, partly because his gentle, un-macho demeanour suggests to her that he might be gay. Fatima is herself in a serious bind, her old-world parents having given her an ultimatum to give up her “perverted” lifestyle or be cut off from the family and her tuition funding.
Doctor expertly matches these diverse characters together in intimate situations, creating tense or touching moments of connection across divisions of age, gender and sexual or cultural bias. The novel builds a message that sometimes feels too earnestly prescriptive — but the charm and authenticity of the main players make the heartfelt editorializing easy to forgive.
It gradually emerges that Ismail is succumbing to an encoded love that he might have lavished on the child he lost. Doctor leads us to this understanding with wonderful sleight of hand. It sneaks up and then hits with a tender wallop. Novels don’t often spring sudden tears from me. This story did it several times, and never with tawdry tugs at the heartstrings. The book cuts deep, to the core of love, universal need and our responsibility to others.