Why is Farzana Doctor’s latest and fourth novel titled Seven?
This and other questions drive this seemingly “domestic” novel forward. It is impressive to see how gradually and thoughtfully Doctor infuses a sense of mystery and a suspenseful pace into a novel which, at first glance, may seem like yet another of the now voluminous corpus of diasporic literature in English premised on a “return” and a “discovery”—a sort of reverse hero’s journey template. Moreover, to enhance this quality, Doctor succeeds in creating a protagonist who herself often doubts the reliability of her own ideas, impressions, theories, and indeed, even language.
The protagonist of Seven is Sharifa, a first-generation Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Indo-Canadian woman ostensibly blessed with a wonderful family and life who, nevertheless, suspects something is less than idyllic about her familial past. Sexual trauma, inflicted by known and trusted persons, is an evil with which many are all too familiar. But the way Doctor wraps that trauma within the novel’s two parallel plots—one the visit of Sharifa and her diasporic family to the Indian Bohra Muslim clan and community “back home” in Bombay, and the other an archival search for the “truth” about a near-mythic forefather—works unexpectedly well because, as much of the diaspora and likely others well know, you can never go home again. In many ways, not being able to go home again resembles the nature of trauma: it can be located, but it cannot be solved. It is through this two-pronged framework, replete with possibilities for scrutinizing intimacy, power, and betrayal—things intrinsic to the politics and ideology of “family” as women have long felt and feminists have long understood—that Doctor stretches the generic boundaries of the diasporic tale of longing, quest, and self-recovery into one of psychological suspense, as Sharifa’s dream about girlhood exemplifies: “Somehow, magically, I will my legs to kick, and their thrashing makes the dog disappear. But then, in the dark, a moist palm grabs first my right foot and then the left, a wrist bone clashing with my ankle. I can’t see the face of the person who restrains me.”
Doctor creates this suspense by very slowly releasing information, by not allowing the reader to get even one step ahead of the protagonist and first-person narrator, and by creating a plot where the protagonist’s discovery proceeds along several axes—the result is truly impressive as well as satisfyingly nail-biting. The axes consist of the novel’s parallel plots: Sharifa’s quest for an understanding of her sexuality, and her search for the truth about her great-great-grandfather Abdoolally’s personal life and four marriages. Also notable is how Doctor’s employment of multiple personas and points of view—some emotional, some ideological, and some essentially collaterally swept up—add depth and complexity to the suspense and the mystery, or rather the two perhaps related (though it is not known till the very end whether causally or co-relationally) mysteries.
The novel relies in part on a zigzagging timeline. Part of the story is told in the protagonist Sharifa’s voice, and the other part is an imagined account of the actual life of the forefather Abdoolally, whom Sharifa sets out to learn more about during her academic husband’s eight-month sabbatical in India. While in fiction this is a perfectly acceptable convention, marked in its divergence from the present by italicized font, this related telling of Abdoolally’s story as a realist record of his own time, produced in that time, makes a few points regarding plot and narration. First, it cinches the work’s largely fictional but somewhat memoir-like quality, which seems intended, as Doctor writes in the epilogue that the work is indeed in part based on her own family history. However, as fiction, Seven’s use of the parallel storylines—Sharifa’s and Abdoolally’s—is also a thematic suture in that Sharifa’s dive into her own past is closely related to her dive into Abdoolally’s past, and the critical problem of both storylines is the same phenomenon: traditionally practiced disciplining of women’s sexuality by their own kin. The choice of the hunt for the forefather’s “real” story as a parallel, semi-gothic storyline is, for that reason, a successful and appropriate one, as well as fresh and unique—a departure from the usual feminist quest for a powerful and inspirational foremother (though there are several powerful female characters in Seven).
Doctor’s depiction of South Asian family life and the ties between diaspora and homeland is unerring and insightful. Not only is this a story of the demystification of patriarchal taboos and prohibitions, but also a wonderful exploration of women’s relationships with other women as mothers, daughters, sisters, and cousins. It is also a persuasive and highly realist spotlight on contemporary India and the women’s movements and activism generated there in recent times in response to cataclysmic violence against women. But above all, the reason why the novel is titled Seven is only revealed near the end, capped by one final surprising, yet entirely retrospectively foreseeable, twist in the psychologically suspenseful storyline. Notably, the wait over nearly three hundred fifty pages of page-turning print is entirely worth it.
Farzana Doctor is the author of three previous novels, of which Six Meters of Pavement won a Lambda Literary Award and was short-listed for the Toronto Book Award. Here is a writer with an unslipping grasp of realist prose that aims beyond the traditional “family saga” model of much recent literature from postcolonial writers, as well as unswerving fidelity to the timbres and cadences of the real lives of real people in a transnational world and time, and grappling with societal challenges at times seemingly beyond their control, until they are no longer mere unwitting actors in a social drama they did not choose.
About the Reviewer
Nandini Bhattacharya is a writer and a Professor of English at Texas A&M University. Her first novel Love's Garden appeared in October 2020. She’s completing Homeland Blues, her second novel, about love, race, caste and colorism. Shorter work has been published or will be in Oyster River Pages, Sky Island Journal, the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories 2021, Bombay Review, PANK, and others. She can be found on Amazon, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her blog.