Despite having one setting – limbo – in which eating is altogether unnecessary and another – a Mexican resort – where cocktails assume a greater role than food, the quirky televised cooking contest Chopped sprang to mind while reading Farzana Doctor’s third book. Chopped requires competing chefs to open baskets of unusual and seemingly incompatible ingredients and come up with a dish in under 30 minutes.
Since Doctor has no off-camera assistants stuffing baskets with bizarre ingredients, she acts as both producer and contestant, selecting disparate elements for her story, then assembling them into a coherent whole. The real question is, can she fashion something suitably mouthwatering out of the component parts?
The plot elements comprise Doctor’s strange ingredients. About half of the novel, set in the Atlantis “mega resort” in Mexico over a few months in 2015, is narrated by Ameera, a “biracial and bisexual” Canadian with looming worries. She’s nearing 30 and has left behind two dead-end jobs in Hamilton for another selling tour packages to sunburned guests in Huatulco. Ameera’s strongest characteristics are a listlessness that stems from having grown up fatherless in Ontario, and a growing attraction to threesomes with couples she selects at the resort.
The other ingredient, in alternating chapters, is Azeez, a former grad student in Hamilton who narrates his sections from beyond the grave. Azeez’s last experience in corporeal form was reading A Passage to India while returning home from Canada on Air India flight 182 in 1985. Since then he’s been floating around, a “meandering whoosh of energy, a confused swirl of light,” having been told by nameless cryptic spirit guides that he’ll reincarnate once he’s ready.
Doctor clearly signals the narrators’ interdependence early, and deftly handles their mutual voyages. Of the two, Ameera’s quest to find herself provokes the greatest positive response. She’s in a state of limbo, too: the Mexican locale offers little more than a verdant waiting room before whatever comes next in her life. Subplots about someone who rats to management about her after-hours leisure activities and the potential complications of her “liaisons” are intriguing and amusing.
Azeez’s ghostly circumstances demand that the reader suspend disbelief. That is true also for practical questions about spiritual telekinesis, spirits chit-chatting, telepathy between residents of limbo and the living, and the mechanics of reincarnation. Those matters aside, Doctor must be commended for her ability to render a disembodied “meandering whoosh” sympathetic. But, as a meditation on the Air India bombing and its aftermath, Azeez’s chapters could stand further development.
Considering the disparate ingredients she’s assigned herself, Doctor concocts a tasty – but not ultimately delectable – morsel. The contrasting elements result in some flavour combinations more curious than sublime.