Putting a crack in the mould

From Nov 2005 Women's Post archives

He Drown She in the Sea

Shani Mootoo

McClelland & Stewart

360 pages, $29.99


Reviewed by Desi Di Nardo


It is no wonder Alice Munro calls Shani Mootoo’s most recent book, He Drown She in the Sea, “a story of magical power.” As in her previous success, Cereus Blooms at Night, you find yourself immersed in and stimulated by arresting scenery, redolent of guava mangroves, squawking green parrots, verdant bamboo forests – and all things tropical and lush. Such a colourful palette resonates with fluid, figurative language, while vivid descriptions explode before the eye and tempt the sensory. We quickly acquire a taste for Mootoo’s fictional town of Guanagaspar – a wondrous, numinous land infused with fertile scents of marigolds, coconuts and exotic blossoms.

The reader gains panoramic access into Harry St. George’s life, first in British Columbia’s bristly, towering milieu, where “range beyond range of ice-capped mountains…bursts of lavender, clumps of mustard golden rod.”

The “Canada of postcards” is contrasted to his impoverished existence in Trinidad. Once a servant’s son, Harry recalls his love for Rose, the daughter of an affluent family for whom his mother worked as a laundress. The tale unfolds years later, with Madam Rose recounting her secret visit abroad to unite with Harry.

Their story is a hopeful, evocative one woven from two fine silk threads of past and present. Set during World War 2’s political unrest, Mootoo brings to light the war’s impact not only on blacks but also on Indians of varying skin tones.

The book reminds of the film Sideways, in which the subject of wine becomes an underlying metaphor for personal awakening. In He Drown She in the Sea, wine is what is used to distinguish caste, along with the “Munrovian” mention of linoleum three separate times to further stress class distinction as the narrator later points out Harry’s new terrazzo floor.

Mootoo also tackles the issue of gender inequality through the interactions between Harry and the women he encounters. When a spirited female teaches Harry to canoe, he questions whether his wine-tasting club has ever met a woman – or even a man – as adventurous. “She wasn’t in this moment physically appealing to him, yet such independence fascinated him.”

Afterwards, when Harry’s circumstances improve, his mother asserts their new status: “We living in town now, and I don’t work for nobody no more. I, Dolly Persad, have servant – manservant, to boot – now.” The writer tactically deploys characters to overstate gender inadequacies and illustrate potentially powerful woman, the sort men from Guanagaspar desire yet reverently fear.

Interestingly, by the end, it is Rose who takes the reader on a suspenseful ride. Readers nearing the conclusion must accept that they might be left dangling by a string, suspended in mid-air uncertainty. Actually, they should expect it. But wait: as Mootoo’s last chapter looms, readers can’t help but feel they are heading towards a languorous, wistful dream, and are wary more now than ever for Rose’s and Harry’s outcomes. And this, much like the ocean that begins to swell and rise above them in that very poignant moment, also reaffirms.

Desi Di Nardo is a writer in Toronto