ALU Summer Book Club: Polar Vortex Discussion

Last week we introduced you to our July book club pick Polar Vortex by Shani Mootoo with a little behind-the-scenes interview with publisher Book*hug Press on how the book came to be. This week we put on our best Zoom backgrounds and got chatty with each other about desire, queerness, identity, and some of our fave passages in Polar Vortex. Below we share some spoiler-filled highlights from our chat and a reading guide for your own book club discussion!


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Tan: “The story drew me right in and I was completely obsessed with these characters.”

Mandy: “I really loved it almost all the way through. There was this big secret you wanted to uncover. There is a lot of momentum in a story that’s mostly about the past.”

Laura: “It was a very compelling voice—I was drawn to it. It was oddly propulsive for a story where this is a lot of flashback.”

Leyla: “It was extremely well written.”

Barb: “I loved this book.”

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1. Truth and memory are explored throughout the novel. What do you think the author is saying about them?Mandy: Truth is different for everyone so it depends on your perspective. We really only get one perspective up until the point when Alex comes in and then Prakash visits. Priya is a kind of unreliable narrator, but maybe not purposely—her memories are rearranged to fit what she wants to believe.Leyla: Memory is so subjective and so too are everyone’s truths.Barb: Priya’s unreliability comes from her not understanding her past.Tan: I appreciated that Priya was a narrator trying to operate against other unreliable characters, like Alex and Prakash who aren’t necessarily being honest with her. She’s not necessarily leading you astray—you’re learning things with her.2. How does Polar Vortex play into the current trope of the unreliable female narrator, and how does it challenge it?Leyla: It’s not until the end where all of Priya’s repressed memories come to light. I totally misunderstood the nature of Priya and Prakash’s relationship until the very end. Priya had effectively erased some of the memories she had with Prakash. It occurred to me that it’s a very real thing for someone to repress traumatic memories so I don’t think the unreliability is meant to make us doubt Priya.Barb: The unreliable narrator grows more and more reliable by learning about her past and making sense of it. I just want to go to Prince Edward County and help Priya out!Tan: In Polar Vortex, the unreliable narrator is not wilfully leading you astray for a plot twist. This is very much a real life situation and real-feeling dynamic between characters and a relationship imploding without one person knowing it. It felt less sensationalized than a lot of unreliable narrator stories we find in books.
3. Does your opinion of Priya change throughout the novel, and if how so, how does it change?Tan: I found her to be a very interesting narrator. It’s hard to say whether I like or dislike her though. By not dealing with her own personal issues she creates at least in part the situation she’s in, but on the other hand she has internalized the situation and the players in it and she’s missing a lot of how the people in her life feel about her. My opinion didn’t really change about her throughout the novel, but I really did feel like I got to know her very well. This novel is a very in-depth character study.Mandy: I didn’t really matter to me whether I liked Priya or not, but I found her to be an incredibly complicated and really interesting character. But also she’s really withholding and I found that frustrating at times. At some points in the novel I wanted to yell at the characters to communicate with each other, that they’re creating the situation they’re in by not communicating. Seems like a simple solution, but people aren’t simple.Laura: When you want to yell at a character, doesn’t that speak to engagement, how you’re invested and want to fix things for them? I also found Priya to be a compelling voice in the complexity of it.Leyla: My opinion of Priya did change at two pivotal points: first when you get to see her through Alex’s eyes. We can only know so much about a character through what they do and say themselves. And again towards the end when her repressed memories are sparked as a result of Prakash showing up. What’s real and what’s not about her?Barb: I liked Priya more and more as the novel progressed. The more complex she became and the more her repressed memories bubbled up, the more I felt for her.” 4. Priya and Alex grew up in a generation when being gay was not as accepted as it is today. How do you think that manifests itself in their relationship?Mandy: Early on in the novel Priya says that when the world doesn’t accept and support your kind of love that failure in relationships is a result of who you are and that it’s impossible to embrace someone else who reflects to you what you are. I think this becomes evident throughout their relationship in how she pushes and pulls Alex, giving and withholding affection. At the end, when she finds out Alex is having an affair she carries on as if nothing has happened, which could just be denial but also not wanting to see her relationship as a failure because that would mean she is a failure.Tan: She’s a really well drawn character. Priya feels so real. I don’t want to judge her, but I do want to know her and understand all these things that have impacted her and brought her to this one single day in Polar Vortex. It blows my mind that the whole story takes place in one day because it’s such an all encompassing novel.
5. Polar Vortex is very evocative of Prince Edward County, which is continuously juxtaposed to the city of Toronto throughout the novel. How does this geographic divide impact the story and its narrator? Laura: It seems to line up with her split self of past and present.Mandy: I think Priya’s surroundings mirror her internal isolation. She’s a character that constantly feels on the outside of her identities as a queer woman of colour, whether with her circle of white friends, or from her family who rejects her queerness. Priya is always in a kind of limbo between her identities. She’s always existing in these in between places.Tan: Leaving Toronto was very freeing of an uncomfortable relationship with Prakash, a past where she’s unsettled and maybe disempowered. Then she meets Alexis and they fall in love and then move to the County and cut off ties from a lot of people they knew previously. It’s a very different pace of life. For her Toronto is always tied to her past which she’s uncomfortable with. Until she invites Prakash on a whim, neither Alex nor Priya invite anyone from their previous life in. The location creates a very effective barrier in this novel.Leyla: I wonder if it’s a way to isolate both of them from the past they had in order for their relationship to work.Tan: It’s almost like the County is this safe pocket where things have existed and things have been okay. But in reality, she and Alex haven’t been dealing with things as well as we might want to imagine they have been in their isolation. There are some relationships that work as long as you don’t see anyone else but as soon as your interactions start happening with others that dynamic can’t function anymore.6. Desire is a complex force in Polar Vortex. Priya’s desire is complicated by the intersection of her identities as a Queer, South Asian immigrant woman. Discuss the ways desire manifests in the novel.Tan: “I think Priya’s desire isn’t for Prakash, but a traditional accepted Indian lifestyle. It’s more about fitting back into her culture and being accepted in the more traditional spaces in her life. Imagining that with a possible partner—Prakash—and incorporating that sexual energy from Prakash. She desires what he represents in her life. I don’t think it’s a sexual desire she’s missing.”Barb: “Her desire also manifests in her art, which she feels she has to hide from Alex. Hiding it from Alex implies for me that she doesn’t feel free enough to talk to her partner about the things she desired in her past.”Laura: “Is there a comparison being made between hiding her art or maybe not having the freedom to do what she wants in her art, versus this writer she lives with who can do whatever she wants. It seems like a contrast in artistic practice.”Mandy: “Prakash represents this traditional life Priya could have had. I also think there’s a certain kind of shame behind her desire. She grew up in a time when sexism and heterosexuality was seen as normal, or at least accepted, and she really plays into these moments of desire for men, like Prakash and also Stan in university.”Tan: I thought the stuff with Stan was interesting too. It was hard to tell if they were bonding over a shared rejection by the same person or an actual desire for each other. It felt like a substitution for me.”

Download our discussion questions for your own book club meeting!

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Stayed tuned Wednesday for our interview with Polar Vortex author Shani Mootoo! In the meantime, you can pick up a copy of the book for 15% off! Just enter promo code ALUBOOKCLUB at checkout.Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for further, impromptu discussion. Hop on the hashtag #ALUbookclub to send us comments and questions!