Stealing Nasreen is the excellent first novel written by Farzana Doctor. Not fitting into any typical genre, the work showcases a slice of desi life, and incorporates elements of mild satire and romance in telling the story of three demoralized souls, Nasreen, Shaffiq, and Salma.
Nasreen is a grieving psychologist in need of personal counseling support, having recently lost both her mother to cancer and her lover to infidelity. Shaffiq is an accountant and a recent immigrant to Canada. Having left India to escape employment discrimination, he is still underemployed and now working as a janitor in the same office building as Nasreen. Shaffiq attempts to cope with the tensions of adjustment to life in a new country by bravely keeping up a front of false optimism, having passed the honeymoon period of his early immigration to Canada with his children and his wife, Salma. In his coping, Shaffiq has also developed a new and slightly odd habit of scavenging the office garbage for clues about the bad habits and secrets of the office-dwellers, the details of which he shares with his wife.
Salma is a teacher, who is dissatisfied working in a dry-cleaning business and as a tutor providing Gujarati lessons in her home to supplement both the family income and her children’s university fund. Practical on the surface, she hides significant passion behind her motherly, scholarly demeanor. All three characters are low on spirits, but high on self expectations as they come to meet in this original story which combines familiar themes of lost loves, obligations, expectations, and opportunities in an original tale which hinges on a chance meeting, one which stirs up long-buried feelings in Salma.
Triangles form much of the structure of Stealing Nasreen. Three stories of love and loss provide much of the back story to the principal relationship in the novel, which focuses on both Salma and Shaffiq’s individual obsessions with Nasreen upon meeting her. Both Shaffiq and Salma find themselves drawn to Nasreen for very different reasons. To Shaffiq, Salma represents both attractive and unappealing elements of the North American dream. She is a member of his ethnic and religious community who has achieved career success in North America, but embodies characteristics he does not desire for his two young daughters. For Salma, Nasreen is a reminder of a former lover, with whom she had a brief closeted relationship. Both Salma and Shaffiq keep aspects of their encounters with Nasreen secret from one another, culminating in a confrontation which alters the trajectory of events for each character from the course laid out at the novel’s beginning.
Rather than opt for the clichés of a neatly happy ending, Doctor has written a sophisticated story where multiple possibilities abound for each of the characters. Though the novel as a whole is rich in details, wry observations, and sophisticated parallel themes, the style of third person omniscient story telling does not relay the depths of emotion felt by any characters in their experiences of everyday tragedies and triumphs. The author’s style of storytelling emphasizes telling over showing, placing some distance between the reader and the characters. A lot happens in the story and none of the characters or the details, either minor or major are neglected in the story. Depicting the character’s experiences of first love, heartbreak, loss and passion from afar takes away from the emotional depth of an extremely accomplished first novel, one which is quite impressive in its scope.