The Bare it for Books Calendar, sold in support of PEN Canada, is chock full of naked Canadian authors who stare at me from my wall and keep track of all my social engagements. It only made sense to read a book by each author in the month they grace. Click here for more info.
“Before this, there hadn’t been any room for Ismail and sadness to cohabitate, for he’d always believed it was a luxury, a privilege he didn’t deserve.”
Six Metres of Pavement felt simultaneously familiar and foreign. Set in the Little Portugal neighbourhood of Toronto, I recognized virtually every street and landmark Farzana Doctor’s characters encounter – I live juuust to the north of them (and share a mall). But I don’t personally identify with any of their struggles. It made me feel like their story is probably actually happening around me, maybe in bits and pieces with minor tweaks here and there, and now I have this intense curiosity about all of my neighbours.
In part that’s because one of my biggest takeaways from the book is the idea that people are fooling you. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of depth to each character, they’re people you could easily smile at on the street and never think of again.
Ismail, the main(est) character (he’s really one of three), is a good person who made basically the biggest mistake anyone can make in accidentally killing his child, and is still suffering for it two decades on. Fatima’s parents have pretty much abandoned her because she’s openly bisexual, and they refuse to support her unless she conforms to their rules. Meanwhile Celia’s been left at the mercy of her husband’s debts and the generosity of her daughter. There’s a clear sense of generational clash when her daughter’s hospitality doesn’t match Celia’s expectations.
The character’s lives are all built around divisive issues. While the story could easily spiral into a morally preachy critique of who’s at fault when, Doctor instead just lets the characters live. Fatima’s parents make completely different choices from ones I would make, but you’re not made to feel like they’re bad people and a more liberal Ismail often empathizes with their point of view. Celia’s husband led a secret life of gambling that left her a bit desperate when he suddenly died, and while she has moments of anger she also misses him deeply and I think, overall, remembers him as a good person.
And of course Ismail, at the heart of the story – responsible for his daughter’s death and basically a functioning alcoholic as a result. He could easily be called negligent, even a murderer, and while the book obviously provokes a more sympathetic characterization it doesn’t wipe away all of his flaws or poor choices.
I don’t want to spoil the end but suffice it to say that despite the depressing situations described above, things come together. Surprisingly well actually, in a way that feels believable. I mean, it’s a pretty optimistic outcome – but it’s not perfect, just like everyone involved.