Relationships are exciting. As two people begin to bond, walls are brought down, and vulnerabilities are shown. We invite a person into the sanctum of our private life, developing a sense of security that we hope will never be shattered. But how much can we really trust anyone?
That is the central question to Giller-nominated author Shani Mootoo's new novel, Polar Vortex (Book*hug), a twisting psychological thriller that explores the limits of intimacy and consequences of betrayal.
When Alex and Priya decide to leave the big city behind, their move to the country signals the beginning of a new era. Unbeknownst to Alex, however, Priya has an ulterior motive: to escape her obsessive friend, Prakash. When Priya is once again contacted by him, she bizarrely invites him up to spend the night. Prakash's presence in their home begins to erode Alex and Priya's relationship, exposing weaknesses and peeling away layers that will test them both.
We're thrilled to feature an excerpt from Polar Vortex on Open Book today.
Excerpt from 'Polar Vortex' by Shani Mootoo
The day I told Alex that Prakash would be coming to spend a night with us in our house, she was perplexed. She hadn’t realized, she said, that the man in the photo and I had all the while been communicating. We hadn’t, I told her. Just after I opened
my Twitter account, he saw I was active on it and wrote me. She was instantly incensed. “You expect me to be happy that a strange man will come and spend a night here with us?”
I was taken aback, of course, and protested, perhaps too much, which then set the tone for all interactions between her and me regarding him. “What do you mean? He’s one of my oldest friends,” I said, then corrected myself: “Not one of. He is
my oldest friend. I’ve known him longer than anyone else in this country. Longer than anyone I’m still in touch with.”
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She lobbed back, “Maybe so, but you never talk about him. As far as I can tell, he’s not part of your life. And he is a stranger to me. He can stay at a bed and breakfast. You can find one for him.”
“Oh, come on. He was once one of my closest friends; when he asked, I couldn’t say no. We really were very close. I didn’t want to say no. In any case, it’s only for one night.”
“And what do you mean by that — really very close?”
“Oh, good God. As close as a lesbian and a straight man could be.” I rolled my eyes and laughed. I looked to the ceiling, then added dramatically, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You should’ve asked me first, Priya,” she said.
The truth is, when I invited him it was an impulsive gesture and I didn’t expect he’d come all the way down here. When he accepted, I was taken aback. I recognized at once that I’d gotten on a train that was travelling at breakneck speed and I found myself unable to uninvite him.
“It would never have occurred to me you’d mind,” I said. “You know, I’d never tell you that one of your friends couldn’t stay with us, especially if it’s just for one night.” She didn’t answer, so I continued. “If you’re really asking me to cancel with him, you’re asking me to make a fool of myself.”
I stormed past her, out of the main part of the house and to my studio. At once I remembered the installation — three altarpieces made for a gallery exhibition that had taken place years before I knew Alex — based on that old recurring dream, the one I awoke to just a short while ago. Pieces of it — three dark brown beer bottles — are stored on a shelf, there for all to see. I’d removed the original labels from the bottles and made my own for each. Alex had once, a good while ago, held up one of the bottles and examined the label, but didn’t pay it more than cursory attention. I had observed this but offered no explanation. The label on the bottle she held is a composite photograph of a bride and groom standing around a Hindu-like altar, a square box filled with dirt low on the ground. At the centre of the altar a fire burns brightly. The bride wears a red wedding sari. Behind them is a wall of red paper decorated with gold paisley. The marrying couple is arranged so they seem to be praying together, their eyes fixed on the fire in the altar. Prakash is the man in the photo. I dressed up and posed for the photo of the woman, but my face is hidden behind a veil.
Had Alex forgotten she’d seen this, I wondered. Had she not made the connections? What on earth was I thinking? Then, and now? My heart beat fast as I gathered the bottles and stuffed them quickly into a box, taped it, and shoved it under a table.
I decided then to try to immerse myself in work. But the tension between us had exhausted me. I kept trying to recall how many times she’d come into the studio lately and if I’d noticed her paying those bottles attention. I could not bring myself to focus, to uncap a jar, to lift a brush. Instead, worn out, I turned my easel so the canvas on it faced the couch into which I slumped. I stared at my half-finished painting of two willow trees bent to meet each other and contemplated it. Where their limbs arced, they were gnarled and required a palette of many shades of brown, from ochres and green browns to deep umbers. And where the two met in the centre, there was a profusion of lemon-like greens. The task was to keep the trees separate and yet in the middle create some new life out of the two. But I was too jangled to concentrate. All I did was mull over the unpleasantness between Alex and me. After some time, I heard her approach. I don’t know why I didn’t want her to see me half-sitting, half-lying on the couch, but I hastened toward a shelf — well away from the table under which I’d pushed the box — on which are stored paint jars and buckets of knives and brushes. She came through the doors, ignoring, I noted, the work on the easel, and without missing a beat she said, “Is he still interested in you?”
A tickle in my cheeks threatened me. It was as if I’d been waiting for her to come in after me. I was dizzy with relief that I’d had the mind to hide the installation bottles. I turned and faced her directly, but then burst out laughing. This seemed to anger her, and she snapped, “Are you interested in him?”
I tried hard to control the chuckling coming involuntarily out of my mouth, the self-consciousness in it, but it was difficult, and I had to angle away from her. I turned my back and fiddled with jars of paint. I reminded her that he and I had a very long friendship, which would not have been possible in the face of such a complication, and I asked if she could honestly imagine, knowing me as well as she did, that I might be interested in anyone but her. In typical fashion, she persisted.
“Priya, I want to talk to you,” she snapped. She didn’t, for what felt like an eternity, say any more. I could feel her eyes on my back as I culled jars of similar colours in pyramid-shaped piles. All the while I held my breath. Then she said, “Look at me, Priya.”
I faced her, my shoulders slumped and my mouth twisted in a show of fatigue.
“We’re becoming strangers, Priya. We’re growing apart. What’s happened to us? We’re not communicating anymore. It’s as if I don’t know you. As if you hide things from me, don’t always tell me what’s going on.”
Well, who doesn’t hide things? I wanted to ask. I didn’t, of course. But strangers? What did she mean by that? Well, she’s a fine one to bark. She’s the one who’s always preoccupied by her work. The book. My work. The book. My work. Long before all this commotion about Prakash. She’s the one who goes by herself on weekends — weekends when she and I could be together — to our friends’ cottage on the Shield to work on the bloody book. When she comes back, there’s always a distance between us. Her head still in the work, I guess, and me peeved she prefers to go up to such a beautiful part of the province without me. I distract her when I’m there, she says. Well, it’s true: there are walks to be had among the white pines, kayaking along the shore among the trumpeter and mute swans, et cetera, and I am not a loner — cultural difference, I suppose — so I prefer to share these things with someone, and yes, I guess I can be a nuisance when she’s trying to think and write. And that’s the point. We’re not on the same page about the kinds of things we want to do, about doing “extracurricular” things together. Maybe more like roommates than strangers. I suppose that’s just splitting hairs.
But strangers? Perhaps she was suggesting she saw some sort of bigger problem between us. I glared at her, a look of incredulity on my face, then half turned and picked up a crusty old palette. With a palette knife I began to frantically scrape it clean, flecks of plasticized paint curling, flying, sticking with static to my clothing. I wanted to yell that there wasn’t any problem and to stop creating one. And that once he’d come and gone, she’d see we were good. Yes, she’d see that. We’re fine. We’re good.
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 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.