The ReLit shortlist was announced earlier this week, but I’m still reading from the longlist.
Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn, 2011) was also nominated for the Toronto Book Award.
That’s fitting because the setting plays an important role in this story, but much of the drama is interior, unfolding in geography defined by memory and regret.
Ismail Boxwala made a tragic mistake almost twenty years ago; he still struggles to cope with the ramifications of that act, with the resulting loss.
“He believed inertia would prevent him from being hurt by life. Mostly he wanted to avoid making another mistake.”
Ismail went to work one day and forgot that his infant daughter was still in the car, strapped into the back seat on a busy Toronto street in mid-August 1990. He forgot; she died.
When he was informed of her death, in the police station, he fell to the ground, and cut his chest on a piece of metal in the officer’s chair as he fell.
The gash left a scar, became a keloid, a “complicated incomplete healing”, but it’s the emotional aftermath that causes the most severe injury.
“Regret will cause the heart to grow weak, infection will creep in, and a person will die a slow, painful death.”
Farzana Doctor does a fine job of relaying a great quantity of information across the narrative in a natural and easy manner, demonstrating the slow, painful death that Ismail has courted over the years.
The prose is simply structured and the language is clear, which suits a story whose components carry such an emotional weight.
Readers meet Ismail on the street in his neighbourhood, witness him have a conversation, experience that moment with him, but as the pages turn, readers come to understand the history of his relationship with his man, and the way in which the neighbours’ knowledge of Ismail’s mistake/loss has impacted his life in that community (and beyond).
Gradually readers are immersed in this man’s everyday life, with a broader understanding, not only of the ordinary details of his work and his personal life in the present, but an awareness of the fears and sorrows that haunt him following his daughter’s death.
Accompanying this development is a parallel story of a neighbour, who comes to play a central role in Six Metres of Pavement too. Sometimes the same scene is described from the perspective of each character and that, too, adds to a fuller understanding of the characters’ motivations and emotions.
Two other significant characters, a young woman who is the same age that Zubi would have been and a woman close to Ismail’s age, are both struggling to accept parts of their identity that (for various reasons) they have felt compelled to hide.
Observing their attempts to live honestly, bravely, despite the censure and contempt of people who do not understand, impacts Ismail’s decisions.
He battles with the judgements that other people have made of him and with his own regrets, trying to build bridges in his private life as readily as he does in his work as a municipal engineer.
“Bad memories are like relatives who visit and overstay their welcome.”
Sometimes the thematic layering is drawn starkly (for instance, Ismail has a scar on his chest while another character has a heart attack, and two losses are considered in parallel terms). Yet the author occasionally employs a lighter touch, leaving the reader to draw the connections (for instance, one character de-snow-clothes a child and Ismail remembers the way that Zubi had been dressed on the day she died).
Sometimes the psychological motivations are explained over-earnestly, whereas readers could intuit the character’s shifting reality without direct authorial comment.
“Still, when something longheld is released — even a hardship — a void remains, nameless, shapeless, aching to be filled. Ismail didn’t yet have anything to replace his file folder of suffering.”
Yet, throughout, Six Metres of Pavement allows its characters to behave with integrity, consistently working through every single day, in believable and recognizable ways.
Many scenes will be immediately recognizable for Toronto readers: CAMH, the Parkdale Library, University College, King’s College Circle, Dufferin Mall, the gates of the CNE, the Lakeshore factories, the Don Valley, the bridge on Brock Street, the Royal Ontario Museum, Christie Pits, Regent Park, and the QEW, and particularly the Dundas Streetcar route. (I remember the College Streetcar playing a role in her first novel, Stealing Nasreen.)
But the territory of Farzana Doctor’s second novel is as much about the geography of memory as it is about streets and sidewalks and the thin stretches of pavement that simultaneously divide and join.
Barry Dempster’s Dying a Little (Wolsak and Wynn) doesn’t hide its subject matter; it’s all about dying. Yet, ironically, it is also about living. Living with the idea of dying. With termites demolishing a cottage from the inside out. With Edward-Gorey-inspired visions. With fleeting, forgettable moments of social contact with a pharmacist or a stranger on a train.
One is “naked as a scrape”. Once, a boy was “ten and secretive as a folded cuff”. But, beyond the raw, the concealed, is something else. He is “telling tales of minor miracles”. There is “weeping luck, dollops of the silvery stuff”. “We woke up this morning and were still in love….”
“You wheel into your driveway, finally alone
with your omissions, engine ticking
as it cools, mouse surrendering to a trap.”
[My sample? The first ten poems. Snippets quoted from “Sorrow: A Reprise”, “Nudes”, “Dying a Little”, and “Tears of Joy”.]
Jessica Westhead’s “and also sharks” is the shortest story in the collection, but it showcases many of the author’s talents.
Believable speech. (I’d say dialogue, but it’s a monologue, a long comment left on the website “Planet Janet”.)
Humour. (Come on, you giggled at “Planet Janet”, didn’t you? And it’s not like she hands that over right at the start, it slips in, on the third page. But mostly it’s a slow boil of bemused chuckling: you’re not entirely sure why it’s funny, but you’re smiling.)
Honesty. (I don’t want to make the mistake of equating the author with the character(s) she writes about, but at some of the despair-loneliness-insecurity-shyness-obsessiveness-freakishness of her characters must be rooted in personal experience, which is why I think it’s doubly great that she can make me smile.)
Voice. (This is one of those cases where a piece breaks all the conventional rules about to write, from grammar to structure to content: it proves that you can break all the rules when you know how to do it. She’s disorganized, ranty, alternately speaks in terms that are too broad and too narrow, and she overuses her caps lock: she’s so real that I started to read faster just because I could tell the narrator was typing faster.)
[My sample? The title story. And did it ever remind me just how much I loved Pulpy and Midge. Pulpy, Midge: where are you? I think about you a lot.]
This weekend’s ReLit sample? Chatting about Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement, and glimpses of Barry Dempster’s poems in Dying a Little and Jessica Westhead’s title story from and also sharks.
Hungry yet? What are you reading this weekend?