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  • Title: Polar Vortex
  • Author: Shani Mootoo
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Book*hug Press
  • Pages: 288

With a title like Polar Vortex, readers might initially wonder why Shani Mootoo sets her latest novel in an unseasonably warm December, but this is a story preoccupied with what surfaces conceal, especially how the present hides the uneasy past. When our protagonist, Priya, looks into the waters that surround Prince Edward County, all she can see is the gruesome scene of 11 months before: birds captured alive in Lake Ontario’s instant-freeze. “Brilliant red blood had smeared the ice around most of the birds,” she recollects. Grisly as it is, it’s an easier image for Priya to fixate on than some other memories.

Polar Vortex opens with an erotic dream that troubles Priya for a number of reasons. For starters, it doesn’t star her wife, Alex, but Priya’s erstwhile, long-time friend, Prakash. For another, Prakash is visiting that day on Priya’s invitation, years after she cut him out of her life. Third, Priya is a lesbian, so why is she having this kind of dream about a man at all?

At first I thought this was internalized biphobia on Priya’s part, since denial and aversion to bisexuality happens in queer communities and larger society alike. Isn’t it true that with every passing year we learn something new about ourselves, that the self is perhaps life’s greatest mystery? It would only make sense, then, that a character in mid-life might confront desires previously unacknowledged.

Mild spoiler: It turns out that Priya isn’t a closet bisexual, although my early instincts – that this is a novel about secrets kept from oneself and desires only now safe to explore – were correct.

The first part of the novel is titled “The Bed,” which raises all sorts of connotations: the bed in Priya’s dream, a sexualized place, the marriage bed. But bed is also where you avoid the tasks of the day, and Priya stays there a third of the way into this book contemplating the situation she has created. Namely: Priya has kept from her wife the full extent of her relationship to Prakash and why she cut him out. Alex senses her wife is keeping something from her, and this reveals cracks in their marriage. Another idiom: Priya has made her bed by inexplicably inviting Prakash. Now she has second, third and fourth thoughts about lying in it.

Those thoughts have a tick, which is the word “surely.” Pay attention to the work this one word does, the force it pulls as it invokes reason to bend matters of the heart, and how much it obscures. A person who uses this word 27 times over 209 pages (as Priya does) is in fact very unsure of herself.

In one way, Polar Vortex marks a departure from Mootoo’s previous work in that it’s set entirely in Canada, where Mootoo’s past books took place at least partly in Trinidad. (Mootoo was raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada in 1981.) Priya is, like her author, a Trinidadian immigrant, so there are some invocations of the Caribbean island. Additionally, Prakash was a teenaged refugee, the victim of Idi Amin’s 1972 “expulsion of the Asians,” and he recalls life in Uganda before coming to Canada. This novel is firmly set in the Southern Ontario landscape, however.

In another way, Polar Vortex is a continuation. All of Mootoo’s literary work, from her debut short-story collection through her novels and even her poetry, has been about family in one shape or another. It’s a common literary subject, but Mootoo sharpens it with a conundrum: What does “family” mean when you are from a small place that has an expansive definition of the familial – Mootoo’s characters joke that all Trinidadians know one another – but that outright rejects queer relationships? There’s added complication for those who come to Canada, where lesbians and gays can live openly, at least now, although gay marriage has not expanded Canadians’ definition of family to Trinidadian proportions. Arguably, it has narrowed “queer family” to a legalistic definition.

In Polar Vortex, Priya asks herself, “What is it that makes family out of two people who have not known each other from birth?” Among other reasons, she and Alex are family because they own a house together. Prakash’s presence in that home spurs doubts for Alex, though. Alex is white, and as she looks at Priya and Prakash she thinks, “He and she could have passed for each other’s family. But people who didn’t know us as a couple and saw us standing side by side might never have assumed she and I, who were indeed family, were at all so.”

Mootoo’s treatment of this subject is anything but saccharine. Priya has not been entirely honest about how much desire for family moves her, and how fraught, sometimes downright creepy, her relationship was with Prakash. That tension arrives full-force into the present with Prakash’s arrival: Priya has good reasons why driving with him reminds her of blood-smeared ice. Polar Vortex is an unsettling novel about how secrets always come back to get us – especially the secrets we’ve managed to keep from ourselves.

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