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Nazneen’s Moon

Moon Over Marrakech: A Memoir of Loving Too Deeply in a Foreign Land, by Nazneen Sheikh, Cormorant Books, Toronto, 2010, pb. 275 pp. $22.00

Nazneen Sheikh is a longtime fixture on the Toronto writing scene, and until now, better known for her social skills and flamboyant personality than for anything she’s written. She started off as a YA novelist, a decent one, I’m told (I don’t read YA fiction), then published, in 1994, a very strange and unedited novel, Chopin People with an extremely obscure press called Lugus Publications. What was strange about the novel was that the characters in it—the “Chopin People”—were so over-the-top that suggesting that they strained credibility was, frankly, beyond understatement.

Unless you happened to go to the book’s launch, that is. I did attend, and discovered most of the characters in her novel were also flesh&blood people, and that Sheikh, if anything, had bleached out a fair quantity of their real-life “colour” in order to make her fiction as believable as it was. There were Polish Counts, Family Compact Canadians, Sikh historians, you name it: the Canadian Mosaic, except in Day-Glo.  This is a more important point than it may seem: as much a character as Nazneen Sheikh is, she’s a character-among-characters, one with a knack of collecting people that the average forklift operator, were he (or she) to encounter them in a work of fiction, would quickly close one eye and murmur, naaaahhhh…

I’ve known Sheikh for most of 20 years, and for some of that time I was lucky enough to be among her dinner-party guests, even though I often had the sense that I was there as her witness from the plain spectrum of the human circus. I felt distinctly homely and so I generally kept my mouth shut and watched the show. I’m not complaining about this, mind you. Nearly always, I had a great time, and I met some fabulous people at her parties and around her dinner table. But even at the time, I was aware that they weren’t the sort of people who could comfortably show up in a Canadian Novel ™ and its timid frames. Neither could Sheikh, then or now.  She’s a woman who lives her life in extremes, consistently making  life decisions on a thoroughly romantic and optimistic basis, betting the house—sometimes literally—on situations and people most of us would shrug and walk away from, too sensible to take on the long odds.

But was  Sheikh much of a writer? On the basis of Chopin People, I’d have said, no, and her 2005 food memoir, Tea and Pomegranates, pleasant as it is, isn’t near as convincingly written as the food in it. Being a world class cook—which Sheikh is—doesn’t make you a writer any more than being ruthlessly romantic or socially adept does.

Throughout her tumultuous but (from a spectator’s point-of-view) frankly entertaining marriage to a lovely man as much larger than life as Sheikh, whether Sheikh was a good writer didn’t seem to matter. But the marriage ended badly, and when I heard that a book based on the events of the last twenty years of Sheikh’s life was in preparation I had some doubts that she had either the writing skills or the concentration to pull it off. So I looked forward to the book that turned out to be Moon Over Marrakesh with something less than sanguine anticipation, even when I heard that Marc Cote of Cormorant Books, who is arguably the most gifted editor in the country, had taken the project on.

Without giving up the details and spoiling it for readers, the subject of Moon over Marrakech is a near epic train-wreck, and the passengers on the train aren’t the sort that have just popped clear of Alice Munro’s jewelry box filled with quietly anxious introspection etched across lives as motile as granite. Many are train-wrecks in and of themselves, and so the real world materials Sheikh had to work with weren’t going to lend themselves to one of those exquisite eggs-within-eggs novels filled with refined emotions that Heather Riesman and her sensitive book-buying friends are so fond of.   It had to be train-wrecks colliding with train-wrecks sprawled across earlier train-wrecks seen from a train-wreck-in-progress. Whatever else, it was no simple writing job: unruly and unconventional materials, most of them very close to the author’s large if not always wise heart.

But here’s the good news: on balance, Sheikh has pulled it off. Moon Over Marrakech is utterly readable, a page-turner in the best sense, with passages of exquisitely-written prose—by far the best of Sheikh’s career—and a narrative track that is sometimes courageous self-investigation, sometimes pure magical divination, and sometimes, as one ought to expect from a diva, marred by hilariously-oblivious self-regard.

Moon over Marrakech is correctly called a memoir, not a novel, although the sheer extremity of the events it depicts and the range of possible observational nuances makes the distinction irrelevant, and Sheikh herself muddies the boundary by employing pseudonyms for some characters and real names for others without explaining why. The result is almost a genre in and of itself: a unique combination of melodrama and factual memoir that operates in a range that for most people, would qualify for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. I can testify personally that I could find neither facts nor situations that were exaggerated, and that most of the events and the characters have actually been played down from their real-life extremity.

It doesn’t read that way. This is in part because Sheikh’s emotional range runs from grand to grandiose-over-the-top. She’s also the sort of person who can use adjectives like “diabolical” in ordinary conversation without blinking, and her prose can call someone “darling” without readers dancing an ironic two-step and thinking about Cary Grant. This elevation of emotion shouldn’t be mistaken for pompousness, and if it evinces an elevated sense of entitlement, it also offers Sheikh a freedom of imagination few writers today get.

The result can be passages of exquisitely perceptive and focused prose, such as this description of a meeting between her second and third husbands (and the third husband’s young wife): “Cesar slowly extends the box of chocolates and his entire body is held with a stillness, as though confronted by a rare butterfly that might suddenly dart away. The young woman presses deeper into the animal. The white aureole of the kitten’s fur fans around her cheeks and both pairs of eyes are eerily similar. The kitten’s pink tongue flickers out, duplicating for one unearthly second the exact shade of the girl’s lips. Cesar moves the box of chocolates closer and a set of plump fingers closes around it.”

Alas, that same sensibility can also produce, a few paragraphs later, a philosophical fatuousness that leaves little do with it but roll one’s eyes:  “Our sombre guide has also succumbed to the lure of youth and beauty. Youth in itself is a powerful intoxicant and when it comes graced with beauty then it is considered a rejuvenating force.”

Yet this combination of elegant quickness of perception mixed with clichéd groaners is easy to live with because it is consistent: that’s what the narrator does; that’s how Sheikh sees the world. In an odd way, it provides the narration of the book with a perfectly consistent novelistic character, and after a few pages inside the initially disjunctive crucible of it, you’ll find yourself suspending disbelief more easily than if it were a work of fiction, going with Sheikh willingly on what is a very strange and romantic journey of self authentication. What allows her to tell the story she does—and make no mistake, this is a remarkable and sometimes wonderful tale–is the romantic persona she constructs in order to write her account, and to survive her own acts of emotional mayhem.

What her story neglects, curiously, are a number of alternate narratives that might, for a different sort of writer, have made an equally interesting book.  Chief among these is the story of Cesar, Sheikh’s bi-polar second real-world husband and first-if-not primary love interest in the book (her primary love interest is romance itself). In Sheikh’s reality, Cesar betrays her by hiding his manic-depressive illness throughout the entirety of their relationship, or at least he does until he can’t hide it, and then loses control of it and ultimately himself. To her credit, Sheikh lets her readers see the immensity of Cesar’s life-long struggle to control an affliction that is fundamentally uncontrollable, even chronicling, with sometimes startling accuracy, his moving resourcefulness at disguising it as normality. She is also, to her credit, candid about her decision to leave him, which she does because the ambiguity of whether or not she is in love with him or the hypomanic side of his bipolarity is too much for her. In the end, she prefers her romantic illusions to his manic-depressive ones, and it is hard not to respect her priorities even if you don’t agree with them.

“The disease,” she writes, “is Cesar’s desired companion and his willingness to expose me to its deadly hazard shatters my concept of his love for me. The judgment that results in rejecting treatment is a symptom of the disease itself. I am no longer his wife but an informed partner. I am repelled by all that Cesar admits to, and wish to run screaming from the horror he reintroduces to my life.”

Her recounting of the second love relationship in the book, with a tourist guide/gigolo who was her and Cesar’s guide on their 1990s honeymoon in Marrakech, and who she runs into when she returns to the city after Cesar’s death to write about it, is less compelling even though the locomotives are by then moving much more precipitously toward wreckpoint. I could also argue that the dalliance with Islam that becomes part of the event mechanics of the narrative seems more assiduous than sincere, but that’s likely my own Anglo male liberal humanism gravitating toward Sheikh’s Canadian credentials. She is, after all, Pakistan-born, Texas educated, spent a decade living in the Toronto suburbs before she moved to Toronto’s Yorkville in the early 1990s and can be found in Holt Renfrew when she’s not writing—and what could be more authentically Canadian than that?

These quibbles, or objecting to Sheikh’s monumental self-centredness might make a few readers feel good about their own virtue, but really, they miss the point. Without the self-centred romantic wackiness, Sheikh couldn’t have survived the things she has, nor could this book have been written.

And like I said, it’s an entertaining read by a unique writer, and should be enjoyed as such.

1810 words  August 4, 2010

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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