I’m sure, being honest, every parent or custodian of a toddler has experienced moments of lapsed focus while caring for their little ones.
Distractions are all around. A ring tone, the doorbell, a hectic schedule, and the next thing you know, your charge has shovelled sand into their mouths, are teetering precariously on the top step, has sprained an ankle jumping into a shallow pool (that was my lapse!) or worse.
When it comes to toddler care, distractions happen. In most cases, thankfully, tragedy is averted. Scolding themselves, parents pledge to keep a closer eye and then move on.
But what happens when tragedy isn't averted, and the guilt-ridden parent can't move on? This is the subject of Farzana Doctor's excruciatingly honest, yet matter of fact second novel, Six Metres of Pavement.
Life was good for new father and husband Ismail Boxwala until one warm summer morning in Toronto when, through a change in routine, he inadvertently forgot Zubi, his snoozing 18-month-old, strapped into her car seat. After hours in the baking sun, the vehicle's interior becomes superheated. Zubi suffers heat stroke and perishes.
This single moment of inattention all but destroys Ismail's life. Overwhelmed by causing Zubi's death, 20 years on, Ismail has experienced only a "complicated, incomplete healing." Resolution finally begins when Ismail has two chance encounters, one with the newly widowed Celia Sousa, the other with Fatima Khan, a university student caught in the throes of domestic turmoil. In restoring themselves, this unlikely threesome must start to face their pasts, their emotional issues.
To Doctor's credit, the characters come across as genuine, to the point of mundanity despite each one’s traumatic past and present. Ismail Boxwala is an alcoholic, middle-aged engineer working for the City of Toronto. The once budding family man now spends his days filled with regret, slogging despondently between work, home, and the neighbourhood bar. Then he meets Celia, the Portuguese widow who’s moved in across the street. Celia suffers from her own tragedy: she lost her husband and then found out he’d gambled away all their money. At 50, she realizes she’s lost herself as well; relegated to mourning black and living under sufferance in her married daughter’s converted basement.
Ismail and Celia’s problems begin to disappear as soon as they finally connect, after spying on each other for almost a year. Celia trades in her black widow’s garb for sexy colours and says goodbye to the hallucinations she’s been having of her dead husband. Likewise, Ismail stops frequenting his local bar. “He didn’t step foot into the Merry Pint once and he didn’t miss it,” Doctor writes. “Instead, he courted Celia.”
When he takes the young and troubled Fatima Khan under his wing – she having been disowned by her parents for coming out as gay in an article in her college magazine, bringing ‘shame’ on them – the strange, ramshackle but somehow workable family-type unit is complete.
Unfortunately, Doctor’s simplistic take on the nature of addiction and how people recover from tragedy is hackneyed and, in many cases doesn’t ring true. There is a strangely muted feel to the narrative – especially filtered through that of the rather staid, but good-natured Ishmail. Whilst it may reflect his emotional numbness through trauma it is strangely distancing, like seeing the world from behind dim glass.
The novel’s other glaring flaw is its conspicuously inapt diction. There’s overdressed prose and distracting metaphor aplenty: spring doesn’t start, it “asserts itself”; Ismail and his ex-wife “choke on their own unexpressed words”; sex is “an egalitarian round of strip poker.”
In the last 100 pages, Doctor takes each of the novel’s loose ends and rather conveniently ties them up in their various unconventional ways. Whilst I am not against resolutions in novels, the ending feels just too perfect, too tidy, too impossible. With it, Doctor betrays the power and potential of her own premise.