Ismail Boxwala is an alcoholic, middle-aged engineer working for the City of Toronto. One summer morning 20 years ago, he forgot his baby daughter, Zubi, in the back seat of his car, where she overheated and died. The once budding family man now spends his days filled with regret, slogging despondently between work, home, and the neighbourhood bar. Then he meets Celia, the Portuguese widow who’s moved in across the street. Celia suffers from her own tragedy: she lost her husband and then found out he’d gambled away all of their money. At 50, she realizes she’s lost herself, as well.
The premise for Farzana Doctor’s second novel is compelling. She’s taken on dramatic themes, a sweeping story, and diverse characters. Her intention – to offer readers a few truths about tragedy and love – is noble. Unfortunately, Doctor’s simplistic take on the nature of addiction and how people recover from tragedy is hackneyed and, more distressingly, untruthful.
Ismail and Celia’s problems begin to disappear as soon as they finally connect, after spying on each other for almost a year. Celia trades in her black widow’s garb for sexy colours and says goodbye to the hallucinations she’s been having of her dead husband. Likewise, Ismail stops frequenting his local bar. “He didn’t step foot into the Merry Pint once and he didn’t miss it,” Doctor writes. “Instead, he courted Celia.”
The novel’s other glaring flaw is its conspicuously inapt diction. There’s overdressed prose and distracting metaphor aplenty: spring doesn’t start, it “asserts itself”; Ismail and his ex-wife “choke on their own unexpressed words”; sex is “an egalitarian round of strip poker.”
In the last 100 pages, Doctor takes each of the novel’s loose ends and conveniently ties them up. The fairy tale ending is just too perfect, too tidy, too impossible. With it, Doctor betrays the power and potential of her own premise.