ALC · Contemporary Literature

Polar Vortex

I have only seen a couple reviews for this one on bookstagram (specifically from @dsweet_library and @di_good_books_dem), but both were so positive. This is a release that seems to have mostly gone under the radar. But I had my eye on it after the aforementioned reviews. When I got approved for the audiobook from NetGalley, I basically jumped right in.

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

“People have long and complicated lives and it behooves every one of us to understand and accept that the older we are when we meet our life partner, the more likely that each of us will be dragging baggage, and that we’ve only been able to grow into the person we became because of that baggage, by having fucked up and learned, fucked up and learned, again and again, and the graver the mistakes we made and the heavier the loads we carry, the bigger the leaps we would have been forced to perform, and it was those very leaps that made us today into better, stronger, more resilient people. Therefore, to go announcing one’s mistakes long after they’d been made, and lessons had been learned, is counterproductive to the ongoing project of creating a better or grander person out of oneself.”

Priya and Alex have been living together on an island in Canada for four or five years, enjoying the countryside and remoteness the community provides. Seemingly out of the blue, Priya invites an old friend, Prakash, one with whom she has a complex relationship history, to visit. His impending arrival brings to the surface many cracks and growing distances in Alex and Priya’s relationship. And they may or may not be able (or want) to recover and save it.   

This is a book that is all about the writing and the atmosphere it creates. From the attention-getting, graphic opening scene that grabs you from the start, Mootoo’s writing is a mesmerizing, reflective, musing, light stream of consciousness style, literary force. Although I do think there is a chance that, reading the physical book, I may have gotten slowed up, caught in the language (just personally), I felt like the audio version did a great job conveying the tense, close mood of the book in a way that carried me with it more effortlessly that reading might have. Told primarily from Priya’s point of view, with a short intercession from Alex in the middle (that honestly, personally, I could maybe have done without, because it gives context to what is otherwise a fairly “unreliable narrator” situation, and I love those), this is a pretty deep dive into the MC’s psyche. Priya’s mind is recognizable in so many ways: the way her memories change or fail her, the overthinking and dissecting and second-guessing of interactions and moments, the indecision, the insecurities, the things we feel guilt over, deep knowing, but pretending not to (not wanting to). It’s just so familiar. And that is what makes my reader-reactions while reading this, the feelings of difficulty breathing, like I’ve been stuffed into a tight, dark space, so affective.  

The primary themes of the novel also play into that feeling of tightness. First, the exploration of relationships, memories of relationships and relationship dynamics and expectations vs. reality and changes (or lack thereof) and drifting apart over time and desire, are all intense and authentic in a way that’s sometimes difficult to face. There is a major focus on acceptance (or again, lack thereof), of sexuality and validation of shared racial experiences, through a lens of societal expectation and general interpersonal connection. There is exploration of being a foreigner in a place, through many definitions of foreign, and how one find’s family and connection. There is a look at who has the power to define you and how you sustain the life you want to live, developed in a deeply personal, nuanced way. Along these lines, I want to mention that this book tells of immigrant experiences and communities that I have never read about before, or (for full disclosure) even considered the existence of, that of Caribbean and Ugandan Indians, as well as a general look at blended immigrant experiences in Canada. And last, there is a profound message about the way relationship needs and wants and unrequited feelings affect a person, the way the past affects and catches up with us all, despite any and all efforts to the contrary. It’s all quite intense, but builds throughout the novel in a subtle way, until you reach the end and can finally let out a breath and are almost bowled over by how much complexity you just read. Plus, as a side note, the ending itself, while being exactly what I guessed/anticipated, was a perfect fit.

This novel is so understated in its power. The language is gorgeous and oppressive in a way that isn’t obvious, but still powerful, and makes me want to call Mootoo a master of ambiance and aura. There is really no plot, as it were, but rather the highlight of this novel is the immersive dive into the mind of a character, our MC Priya. It makes it hard to know exactly what is real, and yet knowing what’s real to her gets the reader fully invested in the unfolding character development and unravelling relationship(s). It’s not necessarily my personal favorite style, but I completely recognize the skill in Mootoo’s writing, and I did fly through listening to the audiobook.  

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