Polar Vortex is multi-talented writer and artist Shani Mootoo’s latest book, her first in six years. I didn’t think I had a fixed idea of what I was expecting in this novel, but this strange, dark, and thought provoking novel was not it. In the past Mootoo has written literary fiction in rich, sensual language that takes on usually heavy topics of queer and trans identity, sexual abuse, domestic violence, Mootoo’s home country of Trinidad (or fictionalized versions of it), and South Asian Caribbean culture and identity, sometimes as immigrants to Canada and sometimes not. But I read Polar Vortex with a feeling of uneasy anticipation that you might associate with a psychological thriller—which I guess in many ways is what this novel is.
The fascinating main character in Polar Vortex is Priya. She is in her late 50s and lives with her partner Alex in a small Ontario town, which they moved to fairly recently from Toronto. Priya is a South Asian Caribbean immigrant to Canada and is the only woman of colour in her and Alex’s lesbian friend group. Out of the blue one day in early winter, Priya gets a message on Twitter from an old university friend Prakash, with whom she had a complicated and fraught relationship.
Complicated and fraught is an understatement. Priya and Prakash, whose South Asian family came to Canada as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s, met in university and bonded over being two of the only South Asian people they knew. They had in common their South Asian heritage and specifically the fact that they both came from diasporas at times not considered truly Indian because they were born and grew up outside Asia. Other than that, however, the two don’t have much in common.
This type of friendship from young adulthood is certainly familiar to me. When you look back on it, whether or not you are still friends with the person, you know that if the two of you were to meet now, the friendship would never have bloomed. Priya and Prakash’s relationship is partially this, certainly, but there are lot of other nefarious layers. Let’s get into it.
Priya is slowly discovering her lesbian sexuality as she attends university. But it’s a difficult time in the 1980s to come out, even or perhaps especially to yourself. She is afraid to tell Prakash about her queerness. In fact, she maintains an early mutual friendship with him and her first girlfriend while they remain in the closet.
As their friendship continues, Priya is forced to come out in the aftermath and heartbreak of her first relationship. Prakash is superficially and practically supportive. But his behaviour to her continues to be intense and attentive in a way that shows he has romantic and sexual feelings for Priya. Priya, for her part, sometimes takes advantage of Prakash because she is lonely, looking for validation, and needs help launching her career as an artist. She also has no one else to turn to for emotional support — particularly after breakups — as a new immigrant to Canada without community or family support (even from a distance, as her family does not know she is queer).
The history of Priya and Prakash’s past relationship is revealed slowly throughout the first two sections of the novel, interspersed with the present where Priya’s impulsive decision to invite Prakash to come visit is bringing up longstanding insecurities and issues in Priya and Alex’s relationship.
Throughout these early sections of the book, Alex is portrayed as very jealous and suspicious about Prakash — through Priya’s point of view. At some point, and I’m not sure exactly when or exactly why, it occurred to me to ask how reliable of a narrator Priya was.
Slowly, part I (“The Bed”) and part II (“Cold”) inch towards Prakash’s arrival as it dives deep into Priya’s thoughts and experiences, present, long ago, and recent past. The format circles back, re-examines thoughts and asks questions that have already come up, in the way that the occupied and anxious mind does. Mootoo brilliantly builds the tension despite the fact that on the surface, not much of anything is happening, except Priya rising from bed, finding breakfast, and interacting in an everyday way with her partner.
There is more to Prakash and Priya’s relationship than meets the eye; the same is true of Priya and Alex. One recurring detail that at first seems innocuous and later looms large and metaphorically is the distinct smell of decay in their kitchen, which they attribute to a mouse having died inside the wall. The mouse is not the only thing dying in their house. Priya later confirms this when their mutual friend Skye comes over for a quick morning visit. Priya thinks “It is just that around Skye I often feel a great warmth, as if I am an actual person, and this lays bare the coolness that has come between Alex and me.”
Just when the tension has built to a breaking point, and you are anxious for this visit with Prakash to hurry up and get started, a new section of the novel begins. Titled “The Visitor,” it pivots and offers the story from a different first person point of view: Alex’s. A lot that is new, of course, is revealed in this different perspective, but one thing that is the same as Priya’s is Alex’s sense that their relationship is crumbling. Alex remarks while first meeting Prakash: “To an onlooker there would, I’m sure, have been no hint, in the swift and almost ordinary gesture for two people living together [Priya kissing her cheek], of the distress that hung like a heavy curtain between us.” She later wonders
Whatever had happened to us? Perhaps it is more common than not that things break down in slow motion rather than with a single grand gesture, and you can get so inured by the slow demise, even as it happens and happens and happens right before your eyes, that you don’t notice the approach of the point of no return.
In the novel’s fourth and final section — again from Priya’s perspective — what we know about Priya and Prakash and Priya and Alex are turned upside down. I won’t say any more except you should get this book and experience it for yourself! It is a breathtaking and anxiety-inducing finale.
One of the first words I used to describe Polar Vortex was thought provoking. I do not use that word glibly. In a similar way to another recent read, The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya (review here), Polar Vortex left me silently contemplating the themes and the complex ways in which they were handled for extended periods of time when I wasn’t even in the middle of a reading session.
I was particularly haunted by this passage from Priya’s perspective early in the novel:
When the large world around you does not support your kind of love, it can be hard to nurture and sustain a relationship. It’s hard to stay in when things get rough and tough; you don’t see your problems as common ones that any relationship might come up against. You can’t talk to your mother and get advice or comfort or stories from her. You see your failure as a result of who or what you are, of you as a person—you begin to chew on leathery words like normal, and when that happens, when you question your own worth, it’s impossible to embrace someone else who reflects to you what you are. Well, at least that’s how it was for me in my younger days. It’s different now, but I do wonder how different it really is. Anyway, it’s not something you can talk to other people ‘like yourself’ about because even if they have privately experienced the same set of feelings, they want the actions you take, the things you say, to reflect a kind of politics that says that, no matter what, we’re out and we’re proud and we’re happy, very happy, to be the way we are, and you’d better get used to us.
Although I have different racial, cultural, sexual, and generational identities and gender presentation than Priya, this passage struck a deep chord with me. Priya is talking about a politics of queer identity and palatability that wants to erase the complexity of queer experiences and flatten our humanity. A politics that doesn’t actually allow us to experience and process all our feelings or to flourish as it claims we already are.
I have also thought a lot about how Priya is scared and ashamed to admit she’s been affected by heteronormativity and sexism. She remembers that she has sometimes played the “Indian woman” to Prakash’s Indian man in their friendship. She has internalized the idea that she must always be — and must always have been — strong, confident, and sure about her lesbian identity. It’s clear Priya has been deeply affected and scarred by that white cis gay men-centric paradigm of gayness, the “sure” narrative, that well meaning advice “You’ll know if you’re gay!” that makes people think they can’t be if they’re not 100% certain or if their past behaviour or feelings don’t fit the model.
The pressures of sexism and heterosexism are such heavy burdens, especially in the decades in which Priya is growing into her identities. I wish I could tell her that seeking attention and validation from men is a societal habit that you are conditioned into, and that simply being a lesbian does not erase this oppressive conditioning. It’s not her fault! I wish I could point her to a community and support system of queer people of colour and of queer South Asian people, which she seemed to lack even in Toronto. (I think, happily, this is not true 40 years later in Toronto for younger generations of QTPOC and queer and trans South Asian people specifically). Witnessing the triple effects of sexism, racism, and homophobia on queer women of colour like Priya is heartbreaking and important.
There is even a subtle presence of biphobia as Priya’s mind wanders back through her relationship with Prakash. Early on in Priya’s conflicted thoughts, I kept thinking: well what’s the big deal even if she was involved with Prakash, bisexuality exists! Her insistence and defensiveness with Alex when she is asking if Priya and Prakash were involved, as well as Alex’s suspiciousness, are great examples of how biphobia can be destructive even in a relationship where no one is bisexual!
Then there’s the character of Prakash. He, in many ways, is one of those so-called nice guys. He thinks, consciously or not, that being kind and supportive to Priya means he has earned her romantic and sexual attention. He, like many other men, is a man who thinks of all women, including masculine lesbians, as part of their women “on the market” (thanks feminist theorist Lucey Irigaray for this terminology!) who should be available at all times and who they have a right to as sexual objects.
Mootoo, however, doesn’t allow us to only think of Prakash this way. In Alex’s section, he tells both women a long story about the trauma of being expulsed from Uganda, the terror of his dad not coming home from work one day, and the deep shame and resentment that so many countries refused to offer South Asian Ugandans fleeing for their lives refuge. These memories and feelings are just coming back to him as he looks back on his experiences, them being triggered by the current Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. I found it impossible not to feel for him in those sections, as much as I loathed him in others.
Yet another theme beautifully and complexly investigated is the difficulties of intimacy and communication in relationships. The deep dive into longterm queer relationships really reminded me of Jane Eaton Hamilton’s book Weekend, which I also loved (and reviewed here). If you enjoy the verisimilitude of reading about very authentic lesbian relationship processing, you should read both those books. Again like Vivek Shraya’s The Subtweet, the characters in Polar Vortex have a frustrating lack of open honest communication that feels completely believable given the complex characterization of their insecurities and personalities. I realized about halfway through the book that Mootoo’s use of the present tense shows readers that there may not be a future—at least for Priya and Alex’s relationship—after Prakash’s visit from which to tell the tale.
I hope if you’ve made it to the end of this review that you are excited to go read Polar Vortex and explore Mootoo’s fascinating characters and careful and nuanced exploration of all these issues. But if this was a TL;DR for you: Mootoo’s latest novel is a masterful study of longterm lesbian relationships; the intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia for queer women of colour; South Asian immigrant and refugee experiences in Canada; and mainstream white discourse about queer sexuality and identity. Polar Vortex is, quite simply, a stunning book.