"I soften. I stop and look at her back. I decide I will follow my desire of a moment ago; I will go to her, hug her from behind. I will gently kiss the back of her neck. I will tell her I love her."
This is one of the more tender moments captured in Shani Mootoo’s fifth novel Polar Vortex. Priya the protagonist and narrator of this story struggles and wishes she could express her deeper emotions for her partner Alexandra. There are two stories unfolding here; one is the tragic and moving story of a relationship that has become distant that evokes sadness that couples carry when they drift apart; while another one is linked to Priya’s relationship and memories of her closest friend Prakash.
The narrator guides us through the world of Priya and Alex, a lesbian couple living in Prince Edward county. This study into the inner tensions of a relationship sends us on a journey of missed moments, jarring absences and tragic misunderstanding. As a long time celebrated visual artist, novelist and poet, Mootoo evokes a landscape of gusting winds, hard winter, snow covered ground, the stark lake shorelines of her adopted home; and the crashing waves against the stony beaches.
Priya perennially turns her mind back to the past as she lives out a life of exile and escape from her urban past life in Toronto. This book is a melancholic read and stylistically is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s earlier writings. There is chasm that exists and has taken hold between Priya and Alex; which is further exasperated when the protagonist invites her long time and estranged friend Prakash to spend the night at their home to catch up. But this story isn’t about hearty reunions and pleasant embraces. This is a cool narrative that has icy moments of tension and disconnection between Priya and Alex, and then between Priya and her long-time friend Prakash.
The distance that emerges between Priya and her wife Alex is exacerbated by the soon to arrive Prakash; a straight Gujrati man who has been in love with Priya since they first met. The writing is sparse tight prose with and a slow unfolding pace. The reader is given a window into not just what is happening in the physical world the couple live in, but the meandering thoughts, regrets and frustrations that Priya has. We come to learn of her complex relationship with Prakash, from the beginning – as outsiders trying to find connection – to the point of his one and only visit to her home, which has a surprise ending
Of Prakash’s own story, we learn that he is one of the thousands of South Asian refugees who were exiled by Idi Amin in Uganda. More insight into Prakash’s personality is drawn out in this anecdotal tale of family exile, that ripped apart their lives in Uganda, and the harrowing days before leaving on buses to the airport with nothing but the clothes they had on and one suitcase. The experience of not being accepted in their new adopted land of Canada, is sharply contrasted to the open arms provided to Syrian refugees; which Prakash reflects upon.
Priya reaches back over 30 years in her mind as she contemplates the nuances of her relationship and the push and pull of attraction with him. Priya is in a constant state of remisicense and reverie for times spent with Prakash, but there is also a darker side to this relationship; the fact that on a few occasions Prakash has tried his best to court Priya hoping that she will return the attention. So much so that one of the reasons Priya leaves Toronto is to get away from the smothering attention of Prakash. However, moving to a new quiet country town does not end the pursuit. For six years Priya lives in a cocoon with her wife at home, not connecting to social media or any other ways of drawing her past back into the present. She lives with a false sense of comfort in having the good life, glossing over the fact that she is the only person of colour in her and Alex’s social circle, and her life as a Trinidadian born South Asian, has had a more circuitous route to becoming a Canadian. Citizenship is explored briefly in this novel. Priya considers her path to citizenship verses her friends being Canadian by birth; which ultimately leads to her own insecurities of not belonging when conversation amongst the social circle arise.
Polar Vortex is an engaging novel that captures many themes - migration, sexual orientation, mixed race relationships, love, despair and the pursuit of happiness. Polar Vortex is a book to be read by everyone as its audience is broad reaching and the novel transcends into exploring ideas around humanity and compassion.