I don’t know what it is about romance between mature individuals that I find so fascinating. When working as a bookseller, one of my favourite go-to recommendations was Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, about a retired English major and a Pakistani shopkeeper. With Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, I was more interested in the older version of the couple (yes, this despite Ryan Gosling’s undeniable hotness). And when reading Farzana Doctor’s Six Metres of Pavement, I absolutely melted at the slow-simmering romance between Ismail and his neighbour Celia.
Part of my response has to do with the fluidity of Doctor’s language. Take the following quote, for example, which not only made me squeee in public but also compelled me to post immediately on both Facebook and Twitter:
The widow across the street is an enigma to me. And yet, she is so very familiar, in a way. We co-exist, almost co-habiting, a six metre stretch of pavement the dividing line between us. We’re waiting for the other to cross the road. [p. 165]
That image, of a six metre stretch of pavement, of two individuals hesitant to be the first to cross the road… It’s evocative; it’s beautiful; and, to me at least, it’s a testament to the power of the written word. While I can image this scene being re-enacted on a movie screen, complete with swelling music and longing gazes, the power of restraint shows best on a page.
The best part for me is that the above phrase is written by Ismail almost thoughtlessly. He’s in a creative writing class and given ten minutes to come up with a character sketch. Unlike his classmates, all scribbling furiously, he has no idea what to write, and so comes up with this at the last minute, “in one long rush of ink.” I love that.
Later on, we get this other absolutely lovely bit of writing:
She kissed me. It was short, yes, just enough to leave me questioning if it happened… The sort of kiss that at once satiates a longing never before acknowledged while leaving behind a desire that simmers long after. [p. 270]
I’m not a romantic, but well, who wouldn’t want a kiss like that?
Six Metres is about so much more than the romance. It’s about grief and family and all the social and cultural norms that we cannot escape. Twenty years ago, Ismail accidentally leaves his infant daughter behind in the back seat of his car. He is reminded only when police officers come to his office asking for him. That scene, possibly the most potent in the book, is absolutely heart wrenching, and it’s a testament to Doctor’s talent that Ismail’s pain practically overflows from the page and yet the scene itself never descends into melodrama.
How can one ever get over that type of grief? More importantly, how can one even forgive himself for doing that? I can’t (and quite frankly, don’t even want to) begin to imagine. This isn’t an easy novel to read — so much pain in the characters, and Doctor’s mastery with words pulls us in. But it’s definitely worth reading.
The idea of love being the answer is, quite frankly, one that makes me roll my eyes whenever I see it in a movie trailer or on a book cover. Doctor, however, pulls it off. Partly because of her writing, which I love, but partly as well because the love angle is handled with such subtlety that it feels natural rather than cliche.
Along with the developing romance between Ismail and Celia is the friendship between Ismail and Fatima, a young queer activist whose parents have kicked her out of the house. About the same age as Ismail’s daughter would have been, Fatima forces Ismail to face his grief and to act upon his feelings for Celia. She also enlists Ismail’s help in convincing her parents to accept her queerness. Ismail’s reluctance to become involved, as well as his awkwardness when he finally attempts to help out, are endearing. When for example he sees Fatima and her girlfriend making out, he feels awkward, then immediately tells himself that he shouldn’t be feeling that way, that two women making out is perfectly natural. I love that, a middle aged man recognizing that he still harbours some old-fashioned beliefs and making a genuine effort to change.
As well, and it’s quite possible I just haven’t read widely enough, it seems rare to find a middle-aged Indian man in literature struggling with alcoholism, having sex with strangers and supporting LGBTQ rights. As a Filipina who would love to see more complex Filipino characters in North American literature, I love that Doctor has created a character like Ismail. I generally find Filipinos in North American literature to either be household help characters or, when given an actual role in the story, fairly whitewashed (just mentioned to be Filipino, or perhaps with a Filipino-sounding name, but the character would have been exactly the same even if the author makes him not a Filipino). In contrast, Ismail is complex, certainly troubled, and most importantly, his South Asian heritage plays a big part in his story.
Six Metres of Pavement is a powerful, beautifully written novel. I was fortunate enough to hear Doctor read from this book at a recent event at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. (Full disclosure: I work at the AGM and helped organize the event.) If you have a chance to hear her read the book, or if she ever comes out with an audiobook version, I highly recommend it. She’s really good with character voices, and hearing her read made the story come alive.