This book was really a find. It was published in 2011 but I had not heard of it until it made CBC's list of the top 100 Canadian books. And I think it really deserved its place on the list.
The story centres on Ismail Boxwala, a Canadian of South Asian descent. Twenty years before the novel begins, Ismail tragically, and accidentally, left his 18 month old daughter asleep in her car seat when he went to work. He only remembers he did not drop her off at daycare when a policeman shows up at his office advising him that she has died. Of course, following this he is investigated by the police (though never charged as it was found to be an accident), shunned by his neighbours and friends and eventually divorced as his marriage could not survive this. He has also clearly not forgiven himself - living in the same home, his daughter's room a closed up shrine and drinking heavily. He has never had a serious relationship since his divorce and is mostly a loner but for obligatory visits to his brother's family in the suburbs and the "merry pinters", the name he has given the women he hooks up with at his local bar.
Things change when two new people enter Ismail's life. First, Celia, a widow who moves in with her daughter's family across the street from Ismail. Celia is dealing with her own troubles - her husband died of a heart attack leaving her with virtually nothing but gambling debts and, three weeks later, her mother dies. She is unhappy in her daughter's den, she gave her mother the spare bedroom and feels she deserves the same, but doesn't really have any choices. She spends the early part of the book peering at Ismail through the curtains. Eventually they meet and develop a really nice relationship despite their very different backgrounds (Celia is Portuguese) and thus the disapproval of both their families.
Around the same time Ismail also meets Fatima, a 20 year old Muslim girl who has been kicked out of her family home for being an openly gay activist. Ismail clearly directs all his pent up fatherly feelings at this girl who is just a year younger than his daughter would have been. Of course, because the Toronto South Asian community is small, Fatima's parents have heard about Ismail's past and use him as further reason to distance themselves from their daughter. But with Celia's support, Ismail is able to help Fatima get back on track.
The main characters in this book are interesting and rather charming. The relationship that develops among the unlikely companions is fascinating. It really shows how sometimes you have to move outside your comfort zone to get the support you need to move ahead. As an aside, I loved reading about local streets and TTC routes in Little Portugal. I thoroughly recommend this book.