Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

The emotional chill and chilling truths revealed in Shani Mootoo’s latest novel, Polar Vortex (2020, Book*hug Press), are delivered with late at night, eyes-burning, can’t put down this book feels. One can spend hours analyzing the emotional brokenness of each character and how they contribute to the swirling vortex of mistrust, deception, and jangled nerve anxiety. What we see on every page is a failure between people to openly and honestly communicate.

Mootoo delves into a cross-cultural displacement in which some first generation Canadians can relate. Where we have a specified ancestry, in this case East Indian, but removed twice: Priya was born in Trinidad, but now resides in Canada. As a West Indian closeted female attending a Canadian university, she experiences sexual freedoms that could not be explored within the confines of her culture in the 70s. In a relationship with Fiona, she feels a passionate and intimate connection, allowing herself to further identify her sexual preference. However it is her budding friendship with Prakash, who escorts her on and off through the decades, that causes the most upheaval. A rock to lean on, an emotional crutch to prevent herself from falling and picking herself back up on her own, over and over.

“This story is told with urgency in presentation and voice.”

Mala rai

Prakash is an East Indian from Uganda who immigrated to Canada as a refugee. He meets Fiona and Priya in school, where they take him under their wing and introduce him to some Canadian customs. A connection based on need develops between Priya and Prakash. Both are new Canadians and longing together for the comfort that stability and loyalty brings. Priya uses Prakash as a constant and convenient shoulder to cry on, and happily accepts his offer of emotional and financial support whenever it is offered. We soon discover the imbalance in this relationship: Priya takes and Prakash gives. And so it goes on in not just this friendship, but throughout Priya’s romantic history. Prakash sees that Priya is interested in women but lives in denial about who she truly is, placing her on a faltering pedestal. Priya knows this but never sits down with Prakash to set him straight, so to speak, to help curb his expectations of their relationship. A platonic friendship trips over the nuances in physical versus emotional consent when it comes to intimacy. For one party, it gives way to a slow, unraveling descent which is revealed towards the end.

To the present, where Priya, her partner Alexandra, and Prakash our now in their sixth decade, emotions are running full throttle towards a reckoning. The emotional distance that Priya has imprinted on every relationship through her secrecy and desire to create an image of what happiness looks like has shaken those who love her the most to the brink of dissolution. An invitation to Prakash to come and visit her and Alex brings relationship turmoil which forever changes the lovelorn entanglements of Priya’s creation.

This story is told with urgency in presentation and voice. There is a surprising switch in narration that gives us more insight into how Priya’s behaviours impact those she deceives. In her gifted delivery, Mootoo is able to throw a final searing punch within the last pages of this book. A notable and memorable read, not just in the queer fiction genre, but in Canadiana literature.


About the Author

Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and lives in Canada. She holds an MA in English from the University of Guelph, writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Mootoo’s critically acclaimed novels include Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki?s Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night. She is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award, a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Award from the Lambda Literary Awards. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the International DUBLIN Literary Award, and the Booker Prize. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

  • Publisher : Book*hug Press (March 3 2020)
  • Paperback : 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1771665645
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1771665643

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book (or Kindle version) through Amazon using the link below we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: https://amzn.to/3agIcek Thanks!


Mala Rai is a poet, drummer, psychology student, and technical writing hired gun on the West Coast. Her most recent poems have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, High Shelf Press, and Anti-Heroin Chic. You can follow her on Instagram @malaraipoetry

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