Though few will readily admit it, every parent of a toddler, fathers and mothers both, have experienced moments of lapsed focus while caring for their little ones.
Distractions abound. A ring tone, the doorbell, a hectic schedule, and the next thing you know, little Johnny or Sarah (or in the case of Six Metres, little Nitin or Priyanka) have shovelled sand into their mouths, are teetering precariously on the top step, or worse.
When it comes to toddler care, distractions happen. In most cases, thankfully, tragedy is averted. Scolding themselves, parents pledge to keep a closer eye and then move on.
But what happens when tragedy isn't averted and the guilt-ridden parent can't move on? This is the subject of Farzana Doctor's excruciatingly honest second novel, Six Metres of Pavement.
Life was good for new father and husband Ismail Boxwala until one warm summer morning when, through a change in routine, he inadvertently forgot Zubi, his snoozing 18-month-old, strapped into her car seat. After hours in the baking sun, the vehicle's interior becomes superheated. Zubi suffers heat stroke and perishes.
This single moment of inattention all but destroys Ismail's life. Overwhelmed by causing Zubi's death, 20 years on, Ismail has experienced only a "complicated, incomplete healing." Resolution finally begins when Ismail has two chance encounters, one with the newly widowed Celia Sousa, the other with Fatima Khan, a university student caught in the throes of domestic turmoil. To restore themselves, this unlikely threesome must pool their emotional resources.
To Doctor's credit, the characters are refreshingly genuine. Throughout, Doctor skillfully plays with concepts of motion, migration and movement, both physical and emotional. Characters that today reside in Toronto originally hail from distant locales like Portugal, India - or Mississauga. More profound is Ismail's attempt to suppress regrets by adhering to a friend's advice: "The only way to survive misfortune is to stay in motion." For Ismail, the motion of working, paying the bills, puttering around the house and boozing at a local pub proves to be nothing more than an avoidance technique. Since "memories are like roving magnets," able to suddenly emerge and clamp on, Ismail's coping mechanism fails miserably. Upon his initial encounter with Celia, a moment heralding emotional rebirth, a flock of migrating geese trumpets overhead.
Doctor brings alive with great skill the streetscape of the diverse Toronto neighbourhood known as Little Portugal. For Celia's part, she is dealing with a fascinating somatic phenomenon, seldom discussed in the Azorean community, known as agonias.
Besides being an author, Farzana Doctor is also a psychotherapist. Perhaps this is the source of the novel's single weakness. At times, it feels like the therapist hijacks the pen from the novelist. While characters do muck about through various dilemmas, ultimately, the correct advice and needed support are always readily available. Some writers don't mind creating characters who go an entire novel with unresolved issues; Farzana Doctor is not one of them.
Edward Brown is the Journey Prize-nominated author of Playing Basra.