Farzana Doctor’s Stealing Nasreen
Inanna Publications, 2007

This debut novel opens with an introduction to Shaffiq, a member of the cleaning staff, working the night shift, pulling a photograph torn in two from the garbage can he is emptying. He is fascinated by “clues and curiosities”, shares them with his wife, stores them in a drawer at home.

Although he does not normally clean the offices on the floor that Nasreen works on, he sees her come and go from the building.

She often works late, preferring to fill out the reports on her patients on the day of their appointments rather than to wait until the next day. (These days she is particularly preoccupied with a new client, who is dealing with alcoholism and with unresolved issues related to her mother’s death. Nasreen, too, puts bits and pieces together, trying to make sense of other people’s lives.)

Shaffiq sees her in the halls and he  “recognizes Home” in her, “the round-oval face with the strong, but not too large nose; the full lips; the dark almond eyes that will grow creases in their corners the more she laughs”.

But Nasreen doesn’t feel like those creases around her eyes have been getting much of a workout lately; she hasn’t been laughing much. She’s still trying to come to terms with her break-up with Connie.

Shaffiq catches a glimpse of this from a photograph that he eventually sees in Nasreen’s office, when he covers a co-worker’s shift at the institute. Distracting himself with such details takes his mind off the fact that he left work in India as an accountant for a “better life” in Canada, working as a janitor.)

His inherent curiosity escalates with a brief glimpse into Nasreen’s life, largely because she embodies the familiar and unfamiliar in a way that resonates with him as he struggles to settle into Canada with his family.

Even though Nasreen immediately reminds him of Home, he also thinks she is noticeably more Canadian than he; Shaffiq suspects she has been living here for many years, certainly more than the two years that his wife, Salma, and their two children have been in Toronto.

At first, Salma is just somebody who is sleeping when Shaffiq gets home from work. After just a few chapters, however, she begins to claim her own portion of the narrative.

Readers get to know her better on her outing with Auntie Asima, when she attends mosque in hopes of making some friends in this country, and this process of getting acquainted intensifies as the pages turn.

A similar shift occurs with Nasreen’s father; with time, the reader is trusted with more of his story as well.

It’s a gentle way of inviting the reader to take more of a stake in the story’s development (and the characters’ lives become more elaborately interconnected, but that would be venturing into spoiler territory).

This kind of development reaches beyond the more straightforward structure of a first novel. One might have expected a more mechanical swap of perspectives, but weaving other layers into the fabric of novel suits the story’s themes perfectly.

Occasionally there is, however, a glimpse of this novel being an early work. Brief snippets of Stealing Nasreen feel over-earnest. Like this slightly awkward bit: “And does he know? Does he have any real understanding of what his lesbian daughter is going through? How does he cross the vast expense of his middle-aged Indian experience to join with hers?”

But, for the most part, these questions are asked more naturally as events in the novel unfold. Taking lessons in Gujarati raises questions about not feeling “Indian enough” and studying in these classes recalls early childhood experiences rooted in internalized racism. These, too, are identified for the reader, but more subtly.

Anyhow, it’s not as though this kind of examination is entirely inappropriate given Nasreen’s profession. She is constantly analyzing, putting her therapist’s skills to work on herself, even while admitting that can be easier said than done.

Though just because she wrote her Master’s thesis on The Incidence of Eating Disorders Among South Asian Girls in Canada doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have her own stack of chocolate bars hidden in her office, doesn’t passionately pursue that seductive salty-sweet pairing in her off-hours.

Yes, Nasreen is an emotional eater. She is also a lesbian, a South-Asian, a Canadian, a student of Gujarati, a daughter, a psychologist, a friend, an ex-girlfriend, a patient…and her identity has many other facets as well. Humans: we’re complicated.

Nasreen is at the heart of this novel, but the subtle weaving of perspectives to tell this story works so well because it mirrors the way in which identities overlap and intersect, clash and morph.

Stealing Nasreen is definitely worth a read: are you interested?