Shani Mootoo is impossibly, delightfully, hard to label. She is from the Caribbean. Of Indian ethnicity. Born in Ireland. Raised in Trinidad. Has lived in Canada for over two decades. She is a visual artist. She’s also lesbian. All of which informs her writing.
In a way, though, this information is beside the point– as a reader, there’s only one question that matters, and the answer is: she’s a fine writer. Her first novel, “Cereus Blooms at Night” was deservedly nominated for the Booker, and her second “He Drown She in the Sea,” for the Dublin IMPAC award.
I loved “He Drown She…” The protagonist Harry moves from the Caribbean to Canada, but is caught hopelessly between the two worlds. He is also forced to choose between his childhood love Rose, and his new-found Canadian girlfriend Kay. But Mootoo avoids the easy comparison. As I said in my review of the book for Moondance,
Readers might be tempted to view Rose and Kay as symbols of Harry’s separate loyalties to each homeland. The fascinating but merciless hold that Rose has upon Harry seems akin to the mystical pull of Guanagaspar, while Kay, kind but ordinary, stands for the Canada that treats him so well. But such an interpretation would be erroneous; Mootoo shuns such neat divisions between Old World and New, or Them and Us. Her Canada has its own secret allure, and its own share of cruelty and injustice (notably, racism). And as for the Caribbean-in a clever plot twist toward the end of the novel, Harry is forced to examine whether his long-cherished beliefs regarding Rose were ever true at all.
The novel is ultimately notable for its story and the quality of its writing–as a good novel should be.
Mootoo’s prose is spare, yet astonishingly eloquent. When Harry finally returns to Guanagaspar, the “brilliant beckoning light” and the “lanky coconut trees arching here and there to the thin blue sky” seem to “have the power of a moon over him, stroking and pulling at the blood in his veins.” Has the immigrant’s return home been more vividly described? He Drown She in the Sea is uncommon both in its geographical sweep and in the candlelight glow of its language; this lovely novel dazzles even as it illuminates.