Sunday, June 19, 2011

"Six Metres of Pavement" by Farzana Doctor, Reviewed by Tom Cameron

Dundurn Press, Toronto. Trade Paperback, 377 pages. $22.99

Guilt. Depression. Both are powerful emotions – emotions that can do more than paralyze you. Six Meters of Pavement shows how each can consume a life.

Better yet, this novel shows how the will to survive trumps such bleak despair, allowing Ismail and Cecilia, two middle-aged adults of quite different backgrounds, to bloom anew, both reborn back into the world, each fully engaged once more in all the ups and downs of daily life.

This story is set in Toronto. Many Canadian writers have chosen Canadian cites as their locale, so seeing references to identifiable Toronto street names is no longer so unique. What is catching is how Doctor uses the feel and rhythm of these streets to further strengthen the texture of her characters. For this is Doctor’s little gift, her double-double flavour bud for her Canadian audience. If you’ve walked through any Canadian city’s Little Portugal during Lent, Doctor’s descriptions of the area let your ethnic memories percolate to the surface, blending with the already rich aroma of her narrative to make an exceptionally flavourful story come fully alive.

This is especially true in her understanding of the norms and conventions which underpin every ethnic society. Perhaps because of both her clinical and cultural background, Doctor recognizes the subtle social faux pas which are all but invisible to the Canadian-born outsider – faux pas which are actually the thread binding the cultural fabric of an immigrant community.

For example, through her characterization of Cecilia, Doctor helps us understand that it’s not just that Portuguese women wear black once widowed, but it’s how this black becomes a shroud for their mind even more than being a cloak for their body, a shroud which quickly constricts and chokes a caring and intelligent woman such as Cecilia.

With Cecilia and Ismail, Doctor illustrates how these cultural conventions are not only a fertile bed for depression, but how they allow depression to fester into the puss spores of guilt, remorse, and even suicide. Yet just as this story’s winter ever so slowly warms into the welcoming warmth of spring, so too Doctor shows how time can be its own healer, if only given the chance.

That chance is provided by the third major character in the story, Fatima. Fatima is young enough to be the daughter of either Ismail or Cecilia, and bold enough to be the firebomb tossed into Ismail’s life. She sparks off explosions in his relationship with Cecilia, and with both their families. Fatima’s contemporary ideas of “normal” are treated not only as rebellion but as revolution when filtered through the fabric of her Indian community.

Yet surprisingly, these differences ultimately make no difference to Ismail. His desire to help comes not from compassion, but from his own need to heal. In handling Fatima’s twenty-something crisis, Ismail learns that an offered hand can improve not just the person asking for help or the person giving the help. It can also bring out the best in a woman such as Cecilia, simply because Ismail did offer his hand in help.

Farzana Doctor has crafted a rich story of the human spirit, a touching tale. Its charm lies in the lives led by her characters. Its power lies in its depiction of the potential lying latent in all of us until called to action not by compassion, but sometimes, by need.

Although writing is a large part of Tom Cameron’s day job as a project manager, it is his night writing which gives him the most pleasure. Tom is always amazed the way his characters come alive when writing under the moon’s diffuse light. These fictional people quickly develop a mind of their own, twisting down plot turns far more interesting than the dry path his technical writing takes him in the daytime, paths which lead to fascinating places such as China’s concrete plazza Tiananmen Square, Gaza’s town of Beit Hanoun, and Vietnam’s islands of Ha Long Bay. 

You can buy Six Metres of Pavement at most bookstores or order it here. Farzana Doctor is represented by Beverley Slopen. For information about submitting to Dundurn Press, see here.

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