by Michael Harris
He Drowns She in the Sea is a green romance that author Shani Mootoo frames with contrasting glimpses at love's fallout-hard-won experience. For Harry St. George, the lover in Mootoo's second novel, it's a journey that traverses race, class and the Pacific Ocean, lifting him from the Caribbean to Canada, from poverty to prosperity, and from the innocence of love's first blush to the gun-shy hesitations of the thwarted heart.
Harry and Rose are our star-crossed lovers. Rose is the wealthy daughter of Madam Sangha; Harry is the son of their housekeeper. Rose is educated; Harry's early schooling is administered by the pre-teen Rose herself, who literally feeds him words: "He drank and gulped as if taking a tablet that would teach him to read."
The children grow up on Guanagaspar, an imaginary Caribbean island (perhaps an amalgam of Ghana and Madagascar). Mootoo's debut novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, also pitches tent on imaginary soil-Lantanacamara. The reader, too embarrassed to admit having no idea where "Guanagaspar" or "Lantanacamara" might be, brushes aside the too-long names as ethnic blips on an otherwise coherent page.
But in Mootoo's novels, that uncertainty, that disrupted geography, opens a crack in the reader's mind and an unexpected voice spills through. Mootoo's characters speak in a demi-patois, tantalizing the ear with "exotic" tones even as the story's post-colonial stance arches an eyebrow at our voyeurism.
How does one culture perceive another? And, more importantly, can an individual boy or girl really step outside those perceptions, even to fall in love? Dolly St. George, the hardworking mother of poor Harry, "didn't want her child dreaming of places that didn't exist." What does exist, for mother and son, is a drafty shack with an outhouse by the ocean and chickens patrolling the dusty yard. In short, what exists is what Dolly finds around her. When World War II breaks out and the radio blares with horrors from afar, she cannot conceive what all the fuss is about.
Rose's home, which, in her traditional Indian family makes up her entire sphere of influence, glows compared to Harry's. But her world is no less circumscribed. In her princess-in-the-tower way, Rose suffers more than her love-struck playmate. Ultimately, Harry is still a man, in a male-run world.
Mootoo never allows a character to be defined by one aspect-she does not create lesbian characters, or Indian characters. Instead, she builds meaty, patchwork humans, refusing to label their attributes. She does not name names. That would be too easy.
But Mootoo does understand the politics of naming. Harry and Rose's courtship plays out against impossible odds and is tolerated only because the lovers are so young-so unaware of the world's tired rules-that they have no moniker as yet for their predicament. When Harry and Rose hold hands innocently at an open air market, the local fishermen jeer, "Ey, boy. So this yuh girlfriend?" Young Harry is dumfounded by the term but, blessed with that lexical instinct only children possess, becomes ashamed nonetheless. "When the men whistled and shouted out, 'Eh-eh, eh-eh, but look at the big man, na, holding his madam hand, oui, papa!,' he dropped her hand as if it had burned him."
"His friend" is the only term Mootoo uses for the young Rose throughout this youthful courtship. When Rose's father, the absentee patriarch (as oppressive a father figure as Darth Vader), returns and Mootoo's woman-run paradise is demolished, "the boy" is crushed with disillusionment. The consolation prize, if we listen to his mother, is self-knowledge: "Listen to me, son. Let me explain something to you. They not our friends. Maybe I myself mislead you...They wasn't our friends, you hear me? You must remember that." His "friend", then, becomes a nothing, a mistake, a blank space where love used to play.
Mootoo is careful about this name business. What sort of romance shies away from naming its lovers? For 150 pages Harry and Rose go without names. These children, caught on an island rent by the winds of war and divided by the haphazard geography of class, cannot be known for who they truly are, and cannot love as they choose. Who, under such pressures, could hope for the fulfillment of their heart's longing?
Only the transformative powers of travel can save Mootoo's lovers. Some travellers, it would seem, leave home exclusively for the purpose of attaining sexual freedom. Casanova's travels amounted to one long sexcapade. Flaubert, if his diaries are to be trusted, was entirely led by his nether regions throughout an Egyptian journey. And Edmund White, in States of Desire (1980), sketches a map of his American travels entirely outlined by "gay life-rich, messy, promiscuous." There is a pattern here. Travel frees us-or, at least, our libidos.
In Mootoo's world, travel alleviates the pressures of colonization. And there are many ways to be colonized. With travel, all the accusatory names and labels-race, gender, class, etc.-crumble off (or so goes the story) with the shock of a foreign land. With those trappings go sexual scruples.
Rose is cruising through middle-age when she is suddenly allowed to leave Guanagaspar on a solo trip to Canada-her daughter (less fettered by Guanagaspar's mouldy rules) has immigrated to Vancouver. There, a middle-aged Harry (funny meeting you here!) and a middle-aged Rose for the first time size each other up outside the sweltering cloister of their culture's propriety. "You know what I like about that place?" says Rose to her housekeeper back home. "Nobody minding nobody business. I could sit down in a public place with a man like him and eat a piece of cheesecake and enjoy myself and there was nobody watching my every move, ready to run their mouth off."
Along the frontier land that is Canada's West Coast, anything can happen: "He knew she would have, through the thinness of her summer dress and the coarseness of his khaki trousers, felt his burning." Harry's all grown up now. He owns a home. He knows his wine. But can these lovers escape the lingering ties that bind them to class, race, propriety?
And if we do let go during our travels, aren't there practical reasons? We know the affair ends soon, and we know our foolish giving in can be shelved. Will Rose and Harry accept their love as real? Or will they return to their softly heartbroken lives, and putter into a dusty retirement?
The subtlest eroticism vibrates in Mootoo's description of both childish interactions and middle-aged trepidation. She hardly pauses to consider the full-throttle lust of twenty-something lovers. Eros, after all, is about reaching for, not getting, so twenty-somethings (who hardly reach but they get) are the least erotic specimens. While the narrative focuses most of its energies on Rose and Harry as they grow up on their politically charged (imaginary) island, it is the far quieter (but equally treacherous) tableaux of middle-age that yields the novel's emotional payoff.
Mootoo has written a love story that folds out into pages of reasons why two people, even over a lifetime, might never have the chance to love.
Shani Mootoo published her first book, Out on Main Street & Other Stories, in 1993 with a small press, and it served as a dispatch from an unknown front. Women of the South Asian diaspora were given a voice that was clear, funny and passionate. It was anything but a minority interest. Over a decade later, with He Drown She in the Sea, Mootoo affirms her place among Canada's coterie of cultural misfits, who arrange themselves in a very fine balance-one foot on society's margin, one planted firmly in the mainstream. Like the imaginary island on which Mootoo sets her stage, her novel is palpably real, but occupies some elusive region, unmapped thus far by the popular culture.