Sunday, 11 October 2020

Psychological Thriller: Shani Mootoo's Polar Vortex

When I told my husband the basic plot of Shani Mootoo's Polar Vortex (2020, Book*hug), he muttered, "Oh, a Muskoka psychodrama." He's more or less right, though the Muskoka part is a bit off. Mootoo's novel takes place in a house on the north-eastern isthmus of Lake Ontario near Kingston. "Muskoka" invokes the insular middle-class Toronto elite who, besides having cottages in the Muskoka District, dominate the country's arts and politics by reporting on themselves as being dominant. The term "Muskoka pyschodrama," therefore, is not a term of endearment.

I ended up liking the book, though not unreservedly. During the first two-dozen pages, I felt a tickling of familiarity similar to what I experienced while reading Lynn Coady's Watching You Without Me. Stories of people who leave the urban jungle for a suburban oasis yet who cannot escape their demons have acquired a recently coined subgenre, domestic noir, a crime story with feminist underpinnings.Well-known examples are Big Little Lies and The Girl on the Train.  Any sense of newness about domestic noir requires a lack of cultural memory. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was published in 1938, and before that was Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights. Domestic noir seems to me a resurgence into the mainstream of gothic fiction, which emerged from popular folklore and a backlash against rationalism in the late-eighteenth century. Gothic literature features isolated homes, family secrets, and the threat of death for its frequently (though not always) female protagonists. Domestic noir is updated because of the presence of feminism, though from what I can tell, domestic noir's plots tend not to counter the older idea that innocent, helpless women are perpetually victimized by family secrets animated ny the bodies of powerful, vengeful, and greedy men. Action and violence dominates the climaxes of this genre, so to me the genre is also a subset of the thriller. I tend to avoid this genre myself since I find it too melodramatic and predictable.

Mootoo's version of the tale of a woman in trouble, however, steers away from domestic noir in significant ways. Her book reminds me of Henry James novels, whose plots reside almost entirely in social awarness and the turbulence of its characters' thoughts. His characters tend not to beat the crap out of each other or chase the heroine down a secluded forest path to stop her from revealing the truth about a hidden fortune, a falsified will, or the non-accidental nature of a seemingly accidental death. 

In Polar Vortex, the primary tension is psychological. The two female narrators are both perturbed by the impending arrival at their artist retreat of Prakash, an old friend of Priya, a painter who is married to the writer Alex. Priya thinks that Alex feels threatened by Prakash in some way, but she cannot get Alex to admit to her unreasonableness. At the same time, Priya is unsure why Prakash wants to drive three hours to her new hometown after so many years of silence from him. Priya's thoughts constitute the main materiel of the book. Priya is a bundle of insecurities concerning her present wife, her past partner Fiona from her university days, and the two men who witnessed Fiona and Priya's romance, the heartbroken Stan and the goofy but steady-hearted Prakash. In addition to her thoughts about Prakash, the novel records Priya's fraught interactions with Alex and their neighbour and mutual friend Skye, who drops by the morning of Prakash's arrival. Eventually, Alex gets a chance to narrate her own section, and in this brief escape from the perspective of the tormented Priya, the novel reveals that Priya is not entirely a reliable narrator.

Another difference between this novel and domestic noir derives from its focus on cultural and sexual identity. Priya and Prakash are immigrants of Indian descent, Priya from Trinidad and Prakash from Uganda. Prakash is a cartoonishly "normal" Indian man, at least as Priya keeps insisting, but his background, as does hers, informs more of what happens in their lives than Priya at first will admit. Priya's sexuality also serves as a significant pressure point. Although at first her lesbianism seems besides the point—relationships are relationships, after all—her sexual orientation complicates the texture of her relationships. 

The meteorological force named in the book's title is an emblem for the unpredictable yet always looming pressure that arises because Priya fears reality's incursion on the emotional bulwalks she has put up to prevent any spillage of her past into her life. When she recalls last year's horrific winter, she conjures an image that represents her fear of losing control the narrative that she has constructed for herself and others: "It wasn't a stretch to imagine water undulating, restless, captive, wanting an escape fron all that ice. It felt as if the force of the moving water beneath might actually, at any second, wrench the boulders above from whatever anchored them and send them skidding toward the road, shoving us into trees or, more mercifully, simply crushing us flat." That was last year, though; on this day, nothing can prevent the waves from crashing over her.

The psychodrama is something I came to admire as I finished the novel, particularly the construction of Priya's anguished re-fashionings of her memories as she awaits Prakash's arrival. Re-reading the novel is a different experience than the first reading, therefore, since Priya's analytical missteps are painfully obvious. A book that reads differently on the second go-around to me demonstrates the detail and the skill behind its creation.

I recommend this book.

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