Every book is a universe unto itself, a unique and precious treasure to be discovered. It was with such sentiment and much pleasure, therefore, that I accepted to review John Portelli’s new novel Everything but Fajza. The book arrived by express post, a new friend I will forever cherish. From its velvety-soft, fuchsia cover, illustrated with an abstract one-line drawing of Fajza’s pensive face, I was immediately drawn to read the story. I was immersed in the plot from the first page, taken in by the live breaking news from CP24, CBC Radio and various other local media outlets reporting Fajza’s shooting which has taken place in a seedy neighbourhood of Toronto’s west end. The novel is a page-turner from the first words. With trepidation, we are led to wait in suspense to discover Fajza’s fate and hopefully the arrest of a culpable someone.
As if standing at the centre of an art gallery, one by one, we are met with an exhibit of detailed portraits of eight pivotal characters in Fajza’s life. Each one speaks in the first person. Each character occupies the space of one chapter in sequence. From the second to the second last chapters, we read the relationship of each person to Fajza and the quasi confessions and admissions of guilt from Sergio (Fajza’s husband); Safja (her older sister); Piero (her previous boyfriend with whom she got pregnant); Rona (her mother); Joe (her father); Maria (Piero’s mom); Serena ( Piero’s new girlfriend); and Stephen (Piero’s father). Each self-revelation is a clue card to be examined in view of the dismal circumstances of the main character. Just as in the murder mystery game Clue, we anxiously want to discover who is responsible for Fajza’s shooting and most of all, their motive.
The suspense builds with each revelation, as each one reveals details about Fajza and about themselves and their involvement with her. As we scour each character’s words for evidence, we begin to comprehend the effect each person has had on Fajza’s life and the complexity and importance of each smallest act and thought. It is not until we get close to the end of the book that we can begin to piece together the Rubik’s cube’s multifaceted trap which had been inadvertently set by everyone to position Fajza in her tragic ending. The last chapter takes place at Faiza’s wake. To the grief of everyone is lovely, sensitive, juxtaposed an array of photographs of Fajza’s brief life. Set on her coffin, each photograph from birth to death, almost like a life review. She was a beautiful child. A very loved, intelligent and wonderful girl. A great human being with ideals, talent and kindness to share. Everyone feels guilt and remorse at having contributed to her death somehow and not having been able to prevent her sad ending.
Like the tentacles of an octopus, the net of destiny unfolds to strangle the life of an innocent woman. She is at the center, as a proverbial girl in the spider net, each guilty party, if at first seemingly innocuous and well-meaning, dangerous and lethal once part of the dance macabre they set in motion as an entity. Each one becomes a string commingling to create a nefarious, albeit unplanned plot which unintentionally results in the death of a beautiful, innocent soul. Each participant in this net of fate is driven by beliefs: personal, cultural, religious, political, as well as genetic character predispositions and traits that lead them to sins of omission as well as premeditated, calculated actions congruent with their natural inclinations and above-mentioned beliefs.
In this beautifully written novel, the plot of destiny is laid bare and superbly illustrated by the author through the detailed self confessions of each person involved in Fajza’s life. The nuances of culpability, albeit minimal in some and more pronounced in others, twist and braid an ever-strengthening web, which protracted through the space-time of events in Fajza’s life, place her at the centre of its stranglehold. Fajza becomes the proverbial sacrificial lamb to expiate all their psychomachias and fallacies of distorted thought, fears, limiting beliefs, jealousies, greed, culture clash, upholding of honour at any cost, personal agendas, mental illness and ignorance.
The Greeks believed in the power of fate or destiny. They believed that everything happens for a reason and that our life path is predestined by the Gods, hence we are subjected to it without any option to escape from it. There are eight people or characters around Fajza. She is the fulcrum of an arachnid/octopus-like entity we call destiny, each limb innocent as of itself, replete with its own self-survival strategies, beliefs, fears, aspirations, upbringing, genetic expression of temperament, and character, yet invisibly merging together into a synergistic catalyst for Fajza’s demise.
In our contemporary world where technology and science predominate, we often forget to think of the possible effect of destiny in our own existence. I am very grateful to John Portelli for bringing to light the fact that fate is not only a word relegated to pre-scientific societies. He illustrates and reiterates brilliantly that it is very much an active, ever-present principle in human dynamics, always ready to deploy its tendrils through the tapestry of our own reality. Perhaps we have just changed the words fate and destiny to the power of intention and manifestation, as well as the spooky effects of the quantum world with its possibilities of entanglement.
Fajza the victor, the successful, the invincible is vanquished by the very people who supposedly love her. In the story, we read that she was unique. She was flawless, but that was not enough to save her. She is the quintessential tragic hero and as readers, we love her for all her wonderful qualities as well as her weaknesses, and suffer along with her and for her. We don’t want it to end like this. We wish we could save her life and put the suffering and blame onto the shoulders of the ones responsible. We can relate to Fajza. We can also relate to the fact that in real life, as in this novel, there are no happy endings.
In a quote I recently and synchronistically found in Alberto Manguel’s A Reading Diary, A Year of Favourite Books, I found a quote befitting of Fajza written by George Meredith, from his work In Modern Love:
‘Tis morning, but no morning can restore
What we have forfeited. I see no sin:
The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betrayed by what is false within.
I don’t know if the ancient Greeks believed in a determinist’s fatalistic universe, or if they believed they had a degree of free will, but regardless, eventual outcomes are predefined, with fate playing a key part, laying down events if not directly, then in an overarching inevitable manner.
I absolutely loved this novel. It had everything: intrigue, suspense, romance, socio-historical facts and gorgeous writing. I know that I will read Everyone but Fajza over and over again for the sheer pleasure of it. Translated from the Maltese by Irene Mangion and skillfully written by John Portelli, it is a highly acclaimed work published by The National Book Council and Horizons. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing the predicament each one of us is entwined in and the mysterious repercussions our liaisons can have on our own well-being and survival.
John P. Portelli was born in Malta where, after completing a B.A. (Philosophy & Maltese, 1975), he taught history and modern languages at a secondary school and philosophy at a sixth form. In 1977 he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship and commenced his studies at McGill University from where he obtained an M.A. (1979) and a Ph.D. (1984). Currently, he is a professor in the Department of Social Justice Education, and the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at OISE, University of Toronto. He is Co-director of the Centre for Leadership and Diversity and a fellow of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. He has published 10 books including two books of poetry, and over 100 articles and chapters in books.
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