Rad Riot Reviews: Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

Tense, harrowing and riveting; a required reading

Polar Vortex follows Priya and Alex, an older queer couple, in quaint and idyllic Prince Edward County, and how the core of this union is ruptured by a visit from Priya’s old friend. The more you focus on the text, the blurrier the communication patterns get, as is evident in this passage:

“It’s possible, at least in the very grand scheme of things, that thoughts are more material than they are ephemeral, like energy or radio waves, and must necessarily leave our brains, and when they do they float out into the universe.”

The majority of the book is written from Priya’s perspective. Her ruminations guide us through her thoughts and assumptions. Thought-provoking as they may be, readers can’t help but wonder if they are reliable. Through the course of the book, past memories and repressed memories remind us of the importance of communication, retrospection and resolution. This is the overarching source of tension that is brimming from the first page to the last. One that stems from insecurity; one that stems from concealing one’s emotions for the sake of others to the detriment of the relationship. It  is intense, overwhelming and uncomfortable. An almost perfect reflection of our maelstrom reality. Exemplified by a twist at the end that will be surprising to some and expected for most.

The book makes you question your reality. Do your emotions and actions feel real because they are dictated by others or does your reality feel real because you are in control? An uncertainty; a nervous anticipation; a capricious memory looms over the text like a ghost with unfinished business. That ghost takes the mortal form of Prakash, an “old friend” from Priya’s past who is visiting for the weekend. Priya and Alex have been together for seven years, married for the last six, but this visit forces them to reexamine the crux of their relationship. An older interracial queer relationship between a national and an immigrant, formed in Toronto over years, yet brimming with apprehension at every turn. A refusal to pursue an honest communication pattern in the relationship that requires a change of perspective that puts it in perspective. An apprehension that forces the reader to create space for and start conversations on immigration, race, sexuality and prejudice.

Topics that are omnipresent in all of Shani Mootoo’s writing, which has previously been longlisted for the Booker Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award, and has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize four times. Polar Vortex is a testimony to the importance of representation. A sterling example of the growing list of queer and interracial couples in contemporary literature. Notably, Polar Vortex showcases the complexities of the Indian identity and how few immigrants of Indian descent are from India. 

Rad Riot Reads is column written by members of the Rad Riot Books community that reviews literary works from the Global South, translated, queer, migrant and anti-oppresive literature.

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