The title of Farzana Doctor’s latest novel refers to vacation packages at a resort in the small, sultry Mexican town of Huatulco, but it could just as easily refer to the novel itself. All Inclusive lives up to its name: it encompasses erotic exploration, an anonymous workplace saboteur, complicated family dynamics, the mystery of a lost love, international terrorism and facets of the supernatural. Despite mixing different elements that sometimes feel out of tune with each other, it is a compelling read, taking the reader on a fast-paced journey through Mexico, Canada, India, up in the air and into the afterlife.
The book consists of two parallel storylines that intersect at certain points. One storyline takes us back to the time of the Air India bombing 30 years ago. We are guided by two narrators, who, we soon suspect, have more to do with each other than is initially apparent.
We first meet Ameera, a hard-working tour guide at the Atlantis resort in Huatulco, who mixes well with tourists, both in an official capacity and in the bedroom. Bilingual and biracial, she is a sensual Canadian without a stereotypically Canadian name, who has left behind a hopeless relationship and an uninspiring career in Toronto for Mexican warmth. “Being far from home allowed me to travel outside the borders I’d once drawn for myself,” she says.
Although she is a diligent worker, an anonymous complaint on the company’s website reaches her boss in Canada and potentially derails her chances of an upcoming promotion. She is accused of being “sexually inappropriate with Atlantis customers,” an allegation that leaves her indignant, even defensive, never mind that her swinging nights with visiting couples could be construed as unprofessional. Ameera discusses her situation with a few of her colleagues, but remains wary. Her freewheeling ways and sexual exploration are now followed with a cloud of suspicion: which of her partners reported her?
She came to Huatulco to escape but the accusation jolts Ameera back into reality; she realizes that salvation lies in the truth. Finding out who she is, both in terms of her history and sexuality, is imperative. She is forced to confront her career, and to take a hard look at those surrounding her, including her colleagues, whose friendly faces might be hiding a saboteur. Another question that has followed her for some time, the identity of her missing father, becomes increasingly pressing as the novel progresses.
Azeez, the novel’s second narrator, takes us back to 1985, when he was a PhD student from India at Hamilton’s McMaster University. In many ways, he is the opposite of Ameera: focused, eager to please his family, sexually inexperienced, nerdy. A chance encounter changes his life and forces him to grow beyond the limited future he has planned.
The relationship between Azeez and Ameera becomes apparent early on: he is her father. Although he cares about her and watches over her in his own way, he is unable to become a tangible presence in her life. Both of them need to come to grips with it in order to find peace.
All Inclusive is a page turner, and Doctor is a deliciously evocative writer. Her image of a post-drink headache made my own eye twitch with familiarity. Her lightness and humour coexist with serious social criticism of Canadian society, past and present. She describes the complexity of race in modern Canada, one of the most multicultural countries in the world, in a way that few other Canadian authors have attempted (Zadie Smith in the United Kingdom comes to mind).
Aside from being an author, Doctor is a psychotherapist and is prominent in the LGBTQ writers’ scene. Her other novels, including Six Metres of Pavement, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction in 1992, also delve into characters of disparate racial, sexual and life backgrounds.
Ameera, and perhaps Doctor, as a woman of colour, is aware of herself as “the other.” For example, she reminds us that nationality does not bring the same privileges as race because it is invisible, and what constitutes being a Canadian within Canada is not immediately accepted overseas when your skin is not white. Despite Ameera telling a tourist that she hails from Hamilton, he continues to press her, asking her a question she is loath to hear: “So what are you?” Similarly, soon after a group of tourists land in Huatulco, one approaches the Atlantis kiosk, but focuses on the only white person standing behind it.
Azeez’s portion of the story is mainly set in Hamilton and Mumbai. Doctor seizes the opportunity to include brief but biting references to the Air India bombing of 1985, when Flight 172 blew up off the coast of Ireland. It remains a sensitive topic for many Indo-Canadians, who remember the hurt when the Canadian government seemed to view the crash as an Indian tragedy and not a Canadian one although 280 of the 329 people on board were Canadian citizens, predominantly of Indian origin. One of the characters in the novel, the Indian sister of a victim, cannot understand why Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney offered condolences to the Indian government.
The reader of All Inclusive could, however, easily miss the serious subtext when wrapped up in a fast-paced story about sexual exploration and finding oneself, with captivating characters. Of these, Azeez is particularly delightful: he is intelligent, sensitive, vulnerable and hilarious, whether he means to be or not. As critical of stereotypes as Doctor is, it seems that she is not above using them with Azeez, an amiable character except in Doctor’s depiction of his Indianness. She describes him as being short, skinny and suffering from dandruff, the stereotypical, bumbling Indian nerd. Despite his personal growth through the novel, including encouraging another character to accept his transgender identity, Doctor keeps Azeez comically conservative, which makes him less believable. When dealing with a character who drinks too much, he thinks to himself, “Evil alcohol,” an exclamation that brought Apu, the clichéd Indian convenience store worker from The Simpsons, to mind—an image that Indians and those of Indian origin have been fighting since he first appeared on television screens in 1990.
Occasionally, Doctor’s emphasis on race feels unnecessary and tiresome, for instance when a friend tells Ameera “That colour is perfect for you against your brown skin.” Hearing repeated references to race bothers Ameera and perhaps they are meant to annoy the reader, too: they are a not-so-subtle criticism of society’s obsession with it—the where-are-you-froms that point out our otherness, even unintentionally.
Azeez dies in the Air India bombing but his soul is not at rest. All Inclusive demands that we suspend belief when the book slips into dealing with the afterlife and the supernatural, but the novelist makes it all worthwhile. Reading All Inclusive, like tourism, is a satisfying form of escape.