STEALING NASREEN by Farzana Doctor (Inanna), 222 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
There's an awful lot going on in Farzana Doctor's fascinating first novel, Stealing Nasreen. Touching on themes of grief, desire and assimilation, Doctor lays out an ambitious array of characters and dilemmas and, for the most part, pulls them together with admirable skill.
In the wake of her mother's death from cancer, psychologist Nasreen's been dumped by her girlfriend. Shaffiq, the janitor in the building where she works, has developed a not necessarily healthy fascination with her. Coincidentally, she's learning Gujarati, one of the languages of her roots in Mumbai, from Shaffiq's wife, Salma, who's harbouring a crush of her own on Nasreen.
Themes of displacement and belonging are closely interwoven with the characters' perplexing attractions. Though Shaffiq pushed to emigrate, he and Salma have never fully embraced their decision to leave India. His accounting certificate is worthless here, and her teaching credentials require upgrading to meet Canada's ludicrous requirements.
Nasreen - lesbian, fashionable in a Western way and working independently - represents the Canadianizing of South Asians, something the troubled couple, parents of two young girls, both desire and fear.
A terrific touch comes via an erotically tinged painting of a rani and her servant that hangs in their home. The rani's expression seems to change depending on whether she's expressing amusement or disdain for the secrets the two must conceal.
Salma and Shaffiq are well drawn, and their relationship is nuanced and complex. Nasreen is less successful, which is something of a paradox given that Doctor is herself a working therapist. Sometimes writing what you know deep inside is not the easiest thing.
But you can tell from reading Stealing Nasreen that the author knows a lot about life. This unique contribution to CanLit probes the problems and joys of creating an open, diverse society.