Shani Mootoo, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab

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Mootoo’s novel is my pick from the Giller Prize long list that did not make it to the short list. It was quite on par with the two shortlisted novels I did read (see here and here) in terms of quality and likeability. So however those judges make their final decision, there must be a number of novels that could just have easily made it to the short list.

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab tells the story of Sid, a Trinidadian lesbian who emigrates to Canada so that she can have more freedom to be who she really wants to be as a person and as a painter. It is questionable whether she does achieve this goal. She moves in with a Canadian woman who has a little boy to whom she becomes a second mother. When they break up the mother refuses to let her see the boy anymore who does not know details of the breakup and feels like Sid abandoned him. The boy, Jonathan, later regains contact with Sid who has had a sex change procedure and now lives as a man called Sydney in her parents’ old house in Trinidad. He visits regularly over the next ten years and is present during Sydney’s dying days. Through Sydney’s obstinate storytelling and journals and letters he leaves him, Jonathan comes to understand Sydney’s journey as well as the most traumatic experience of his live, the murder of his best friend Zain.

This novel explores themes of gender identify, cultural identify, and the nature of friendship and family ties.

The novel makes extensive use of Sydney’s journals and correspondence, a common motif in literature. The first part of the book is called “From Sydney’s Notebooks”. It is mostly likely written towards the end of Sydney’s life, when he is trying to share some important information with Jonathan, but can feel that Jonathan is getting impatient with the pace and tenor of his storytelling. It starts this way:

Surely it is a failure of our human design that it takes not an hour, not a day, but much, much longer to relay what flashes through the mind with the speed of a hummingbird’s wing.

There is so little time left now, and what Jonathan want to know and I to say are not the same.

I was rather confused that as the book continues from Jonathan’s point of view, he talks about Sid and not Sydney. Of course, this all clears up in due course. Overall, this was a likable story, but not a big wow in terms of theme, treatment, or writing.

The Giller Prize winner was announced last Monday, and it was Us Conductors by Sean Michaels, who seemed genuinely surprised to win. It will be interesting to read this book, which has something to do with the theremin, that musical instrument that produces these otherworldly sounds in the Star Trek sound track.

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