The pairing of Shani Mootoo’s Polar Vortex and Traci Skuce’s Hunger Moon is entirely accidental. I chose an author whose work I knew and an author new to me. I have been reading Mootoo’s work for close to two decades, while this is my first exposure to Skuce’s short stories. The characters and concerns of the works are quite different; however, read together these works do offer some interesting resonances in their explorations of desire, longing, relationships, and family. Read online, during a time of social distancing, the intimacy of family life and the feeling of solitude, or lack thereof, particularly resonate in both works.
Shani Mootoo’s fifth novel, Polar Vortex, published in 2020 with Book*hug, will not disappoint readers of Mootoo hoping for further development from her earlier work. In my initial read I was reminded of Dionne Brand’s Theory, particularly by the central character Priya’s dissection of her current relationship and what it seems to reveal about herself and her identity. The question of how relationships shape who we are works across both works. However, the meditation on relationships in Polar Vortex is far from academic and the sexual identity explored is more fluid. The story is slowly, but tensely, teased out along emotional lines that could leave the reader questioning their own relationship choices and how social media, desire, dreams, and secrets can move into the present to reveal unpleasant truths about ourselves and our relationships with people we think we know. The central characters, Priya and Alexandra, meet each other and are introduced to the reader at a point in their lives when they both have pasts. While we learn very little about Alexandra’s past, we are led to believe that she is open and honest with Priya and frustrated with Priya’s closed nature and secrets. Priya seems to be hiding things from her partner, the reader, and herself. She has taken active measures to disconnect from her past self and her relationship, in particular, with Prakash, a man she has known for twenty-nine years, who like herself is of Indian descent. This seems particularly important given that she lives in a small town where no one understands or shares her cultural background; in this setting, she is often left emotionally on the outside even if people are not overtly racist. The central tension is produced by Prakash’s impending visit and what it reveals about Priya’s past and present selves. The writing is subtle and emotionally compelling, and the reader is left to meditate on questions of the intersections of race and culture, sexuality and desire, and the past and present.
Traci Skuce’s debut short story collection, Hunger Moon, published in 2020 with NeWest Press, traverses the rocky terrain of childhood and young adulthood. Written in clear and precisely honed prose, the thirteen stories are loosely connected with images of motherhood and single motherhood, first relationships and relationships in decline, tree planting and travel, friendship and family. The accidental pregnancies and resulting choices and struggles with pot-smoking, unmotivated, and uninspiring men are particularly compelling. The constant suckling needs of babies and the exasperation and depression that sometimes burden motherhood are presented as particularly raw and compelling. These stories should come with a caution to any woman living through quarantine with small children. The stories of young women trying to figure out what to do with their lives and how to live with the children and men that are part of their lives would probably be interesting and worthwhile for young readers. Young university-aged students might particularly identify with the struggles between the beliefs of the rational mind and the spiritual longing for connection and meaning in their lives. Many of the stories are rather open-ended and leave the reader with the sense that the resolution and living out of these lives is not fated, but depend on choices to be made in the future. But there is a forceful emptiness and uncertainty that brings the lives of these mostly separate characters and stories together, whether the character is hiking in Australia or tree planting in northern Ontario.
I would gladly read both of these authors and these particular works again, preferably in hard copy, and recommend these works in terms of language, story, and character, and their engagements with larger questions of life and meaning. With both, I found moments of delight and surprise.
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