The characters in Shani Mootoo’s fiction often carry a burden. Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) is a lyrical and painful story of reconciling past trauma with present-day understanding (and a personal favourite).

In Moving Sideways Like a Crab (2014), one character believes that all they “learned about women and about men, including what [they] had learned as a child parented by two women, seemed now to be a lie”.

The heart of the story in Polar Vortex spirals around our efforts to construct and reconstruct the truth, to build and rebuild our selves, to create and sustain meaningful connections in our lives.

The bulk of the narrative rests with Priya. Readers travel back in time with her, to her student days, when her “kitchen cupboards tended to be empty, save for cans of ravioli and packages of ramen”. Back then, a lesbian love interest cooled and Priya turned inward; years later, when she reconnects with Prakash on social media, she remembers how significant he was to her recovery, her reemergence from that dark time.

Priya knows that she was still feeling at odds with herself back then. “Time had passed since I’d emigrated, and yet I had long remained terrified there’d be a Trinidadian lurking somewhere who’d see me and report back home to the entire country.” And, so, she hadn’t been forthright with Prakash about her sexuality, neither in particular regarding the woman they both knew, nor generally, regarding her own orientation; as a result, the lingering tension spreads to her current relationship when Priya announces that Prakash will be visiting.

Priya’s present-day partner, Alex, immediately has questions: “You and I, we don’t share a past. I’m impressed that he, a straight married man, the father of three children, would come all the way down here to seek you out after so many years, and he intends to spend a night. What doesn’t make sense is that he’d come on his own, without his family?”

These questions are heard through Priya’s narration but, later, the narrative shifts to afford direct access to Alex’s perspective. That segment of the novel offers some balance and resolution but mostly resides in the need to accept that resolution is often unavailable.

In one sense, Priya and Prakash and Alex are all presented in the process of becoming, forever unspooling:

“When you’re young, it’s inconceivable you’d ever reach your parents’ age, and when you do arrive at the age at which they had once seemed so ancient, the world has changed so much and you realize they were not role models for the changed world you’re living in. There’s triumph and disappointment at once. It’s a miracle we survived our youth and evolved in the ways we have.”

Whether or not these characters have known one another for a few years or for many years, unanswered questions that hover at the margins. What we speak of, how we speak of it, the weight of the unsaid: these things make us who we are. But what happens when we do not understand our own selves—how much can we share?

“As Prakash spoke, I realized that, forty-three years later, in telling this part of his life, he used words that were of a different time and place. Lorry. Jitney. Traders. Hooligans. Words, I thought likely exchanged among people here who’d survived the same experiences, those people he’d told us about whose only bond was this singularly profound and defining experience. I asked him if he had been scared.
‘Yes, yes. I’m coming to all of that,’ he said.”

Here, Prakash is speaking, but Polar Vortex is really Priya saying “Yes, yes. I’m coming to all of that.” With some impatience for having been pressed for explanations. And a swath of emotions that aren’t named, that might only be recognizable when someone else forces an uncomfortable confrontation with what’s been consigned to the past for too long.

Mootoo’s novel examines and exposes contradictions in how we construct and conflate our selves, a timely theme. Shortlisted for the fourth Giller Prize for her debut novel in 1997—when the jury was comprised of Bonnie Burnard, Mavis Gallant, and Peter Gzowski—Mootoo was an early contender. (That year, Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version won.) Later, in 2014, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab was longlisted (Sean Michaels’ Us Conductors won that year.) Now having advanced to the shortlist, Polar Vortex’s odds are looking good.

Inner workings
In Mootoo’s earlier works, I’ve appreciated the way she embeds echoes in her story, so that an image seems to repeat and intensify as her story unfolds. A topsy-turvy conceit replayed through Moving Sideways Like a Crab, suiting a story about subverting expectations. This aspect of crafting didn’t resonate for in this novel, perhaps because the theme revolves around a fragmented identity: “Discretions and half-truths were par for the course in those early days when she and I were courting each other.”

When moving into emotionally fraught territory, it makes sense to pare down the language.
Sometimes the most devastating observations can inhabit the simplest vocabulary:
“I had gone mad. And, back then, I did uncharacteristic things. Yes, one could say I had gone mad.
How angry has he been? How mad is he now?”

“The house is quiet. Alex is probably upstairs in her office, ensconced in her writing.”
This story could have played out against any backdrop.
The miles that Priya is crossing are in her mind, rather than a trail one can trace on a map.

Opening with a brief and italicized scene, which turns out to be a dream, Polar Vortex is primarily interior and reflective commentary. Inward realizations and discoveries will appeal to those who enjoy psychologically driven narratives; the short chapters at the beginning will enlarge that readership somewhat, but ultimately this is a quiet novel about thoughts and feelings, designed to please readers committed to character-driven narratives.

Readers Wanted
You’ve watched every season of “In Treatment”. And “EastSiders”.
You appreciate an attractive book cover (Designer, Ingrid Paulson).
You enjoy considering whether information is relayed via indirect or direct dialogue and teasing out little details about perspective, that seem to hold clues to what’s left unsaid, but ultimately you’re fine with the idea that maybe none of that matters.

This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!