Character-driven novels are sometimes murky creatures, sluggish and slow to respond. Their pacing is off, perhaps because they need a plot and maybe shouldn’t have been character-driven in the first place. And then there are those that simply take off and engage you so thoroughly you don’t miss the convolutions of an overdeveloped plot. Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex is one of the latter.
Priya and Alex are a lesbian couple who live in a rural setting far from where they met in the city, leaving their pasts behind. But part of Priya’s past is a man named Prakesh. Their history is complicated, but she’s never told Alex about him. So, when Prakesh finds Priya on social media and contacts her, why does she invite him to visit? As his arrival approaches, the cracks in Priya’s relationship with Alex start to show, forcing them all to make decisions they’d rather not.
From Priya’s initial disturbing dream to the final jaw-dropping revelation, Polar Vortex is the epitome of a slow burn. If Priya’s voice was in the least hypocritical or deceitful, this novel would never have worked. It’s honesty and realism that propels her character, which makes the ending even more delicious, but I can’t spoil that. You’ll have to get there on your own.
The tension, fed by odd scraps of Priya’s prior encounters with Prakesh and the dark cloud that seems to surround him when they knew each other in college, builds slowly, compounded by the problems between Priya and Alex as Alex pushes to know why Prakesh is coming and what he really means to her. Mootoo uses all the levers at her disposal to ratchet up the tension throughout the book, and it gets even worse when Prakesh arrives. His motives are unclear and his manner is bizarre.
Mootoo does an incredible job with all three of the major characters, but Priya’s observations and insights about not only the others but herself as well are sharp and undeniable. And her voice is so immediate, I was sucked in right from the beginning and hooked before I knew it. And Mootoo’s writing is a marvel, spinning from action to internal monologue to fondly remembered anecdote without dropping a semicolon.
Polar Vortex is a compelling story of the dissolution of more than one relationship, told in a wonderfully unique voice. It’s well worth your time.
© 2021 Jerry L. Wheeler