Book Review: Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

Mootoo, Shani. Polar Vortex. Book*Hug Press. 2020. PB. $16.95. 280 p. 9781771665643.

Priya has invited an old friend, Prakash, to the house she and Alexandra share in the countryside, despite not having spoken to him in six years. That’s where Polar Vortex begins, in the liminal space of possibility. The morning of his arrival tensions are high, and Alex and Priya are talking around each other, working toward the moment when he will arrive and all of Priya’s secrets will be revealed, or nothing will be brought to the light – and Priya isn’t sure which she fears more. While Alex wonders why Priya has chosen now to invite this practical stranger into their home, and what their actual history is, Priya is combative and defensive, and may not remember to be kind in time to salvage a relationship already strained.

Polar Vortex is broken into four parts: The Bed, Cold, The Visitor, and A Drive in the Country, and all but The Visitor focus on Priya’s never-ending analysis about the situation, the possible conclusions, the various iterations, and the threat of her history with Prakash breaking apart an already fragile relationship. Her thoughts move in cycles, as do her emotions, and readers are granted access to every one of those thoughts as she struggles to understand what she’s done by dredging up this person from her past, and inviting him into her home with the woman she’s building a future with. Is this self-sabotage? Is she misremembering her relationship with Prakash all those years ago? Was it something more than their shared culture that had brought them together in the first place? As we move through the day with Priya we wonder these things as well, bracing ourselves as Alex confronts Priya about her intentions with this reunion and Priya grows more irritable and cold, all while trying to remind herself to be compassionate. It is frustratingly human, and those flaws are instantly recognizable in anyone who strives to be a better person but does not always succeed at doing so.

The tension that builds between Alex and Priya is compounded by the stress of Prakash’s arrival, his demeanor immediately off-putting and at times menacing, and though there are occasional attempts to diffuse that tension, it continues to grow over the course of this short book. There is always the sense that something isn’t being said, isn’t being shared, creating distance not only between Alex and Priya, but Priya and readers as well. Each section, while drawing nearer to an explanation, is shrouded in vagueness, focused on the process of thinking through a scenario and figuring out personal feelings rather than on the actions which are prompting them.

This book will be great for those who really enjoy understanding a character inside and out. Taking place over the course of one day, the true insight gleaned here is from the way we deal with betrayal, doubt and loss, on personal and national scales.

Nadia M Sahi


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