Books

Read an excerpt from Giller Prize finalist Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo is a finalist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Polar Vortex is a novel by Shani Mootoo. (Ramesh Pooran, Book*hug Press)

Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo is on the shortlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

The $100,000 prize is the biggest prize in Canadian literature. The winner will be announced on Monday, Nov. 9. 

Abandoning the city for the picturesque countryside, Priya and Alexandra attempt to give themselves a new lease on life in the novel Polar Vortex. That is, until Priya reveals that she is running from a fraught relationship with a friend who kept pursuing her: Prakash. After Priya feels safe enough to once again establish an online presence, Prakash communicates with her. Inexplicably, Priya asks Prakash to visit them.

Read an excerpt from Polar Vortex  below.


When finally we heard the front door open, he swivelled to face Priya as she entered the house but remained planted where he was, and from him erupted ebullient laughter. He outstretched his arms and, addressing both of us, exclaimed, "Look at her. Just look at you. Long time no see." Still he stayed where he was. I gathered he wanted to share the reunion with me, so I leaned against the stove on my side of the counter and watched. Priya didn't take off her jacket and boots, but came through the house directly to him. The warmth of his greeting was touching — he clearly wanted to hold on to her longer than she wanted. Priya was less effusive. She seemed less delighted than I'd imagined she'd be. I hoped this was not for my benefit.

She said to him, "You're entirely grey."

"I'm not grey," he returned, his voice seeming to feign a peevishness belied by the irrepressible grin he wore. He looked at me — an appeal, it seemed — and I gathered this elaborate show of offence was a way of creating complicity among the three of us. He wore thin, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and behind them his eyes had turned misty. I thought I should turn away, leave them for a while, but I was more curious than ever about some obfuscated truth about their connection and did not want to miss any of this, so I continued with the task of removing skin from the blanched tomatoes as I looked on.

He looked at me — an appeal, it seemed — and I gathered this elaborate show of offence was a way of creating complicity among the three of us.

After inane banter about what time had and hadn't done to them both — Priya commenting that he'd come to resemble his father, at which he beamed — he reached for and held on to both Priya's hands and attempted to pull her toward him. That was a bit much, a bit theatrical, I thought. Perhaps she did, too, as she stepped in toward him for barely a second, and then, rather oddly, pulled a hand away and, although it seemed — mostly because of the smile she wore — as if it were meant to be playful, gently slapped his cheek. There was an intimacy to that odd gesture that I admit made my heart skip a beat, but I didn't want to succumb to petty jealousies. I needed, I'd earlier decided, to remain strong and focused.

I couldn't have known for sure, but I thought hurt flashed on his face — despite the ensuing chortling, which I took to be a manner of defence. Priya removed her jacket and threw it around one of the chair stools at the island counter. She made her way around the counter as I slid the skinned and chopped tomatoes into the skillet with the softened onions. And with more warmth than there had been between us earlier in the day, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek. She had taken on the scent of his lime- and- leather cologne, and this was like a fist tightening around my heart. To an onlooker there would, I'm sure, have been no hint, in the swift and almost ordinary gesture for two people who live together, of the distress that hung like a heavy curtain between us. It is possible such warmth was an indication, a display, either to him or to me, perhaps to him and to me, of where her allegiance lay. It is possible, too, that in front of a third person, dispensing affection was less complicated, required less of us both, than when we were alone. Her kiss on leaving the house with Skye earlier is a case in point.

It is possible, too, that in front of a third person, dispensing affection was less complicated, required less of us both, than when we were alone.

I couldn't bring myself to respond in kind, and she shifted away to inspect the pot on the stove, the awkwardness she felt as a result noticeable only to me, I believe. She stirred the sauce, the sweetness of the onions and garlic, the tartness of the as yet uncooked tomatoes rising from the skillet, and under her breath asked if I was sure there was enough for us all. I nudged her aside and told her I knew what I was doing, to let me do my job. It has been a long-standing irritation between us that she is forever telling me what I've done wrong or how this or that should be, or should have been done, and so this back and forth between us is rote, and could just then have easily been construed as a kind of usual play.

"It's your pot," she conceded. "Carry on, then. I'm sure it'll be good."

Prakash laughed and said he's just like me, that when he is in the kitchen he doesn't like anyone telling him what to do.

Being with the two of them in the same room, seeing them together, suddenly had a new effect on me. I felt, for the first time, that it was good that he was here at this particular time. What was to be would be, and his presence here was probably, in the end, all for the good.



This excerpt is taken from Polar Vortex, copyright © 2020 by Shani Mootoo. Reproduced with permission from Book*Hug and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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