Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo – First Reactions
I picked up this book one week ago and am slowly making my way through it. I’m inclined to hold my own slow reading against this book. If I love a book, I’ll tear through it in a weekend. That said, its been a sleepy, rainy, movie-watching kind of week, and sometimes good things just take time. But this is just a first reactions post, so I’m allowed to be uncertain about the book one week and 99 pages in.
This is a book that just screams “I’m about identity!!!” I’m a third of the way through and it is already quite clear to me that the major theme is identity. Cross-cultural identity, gender identity, understanding self in the face of an absent parent – “who am I?” and “who are you?” are the questions here. And so far, I’m not finding those questions particularly compelling.
The story shifts time and space from page to page. Sometimes we’re in Trinidad and sometime’s its Toronto. The voice shifts from Jonathan, the main protagonist, to Sydney, the character at the centre of the story. We move from Sydney’s childhood to Jonathan’s, to a present day, to a time some twenty-odd years ago and back and forth again. In this way, the story echoes the title – this is a tale that moves forward sideways like a crab.
Author Shani Mooto
And maybe that’s why I’m having a difficult time really getting into the story. So far, it is a rather confusing set up and it is difficult to get a handle on the who, what and where of the book. A third in, Jonathan is a mystery. I feel like I understand very little about him and his motives. At the same time, Sydney is a foggy character , rather inaccessible to the reader. This could be deliberate. At this point in the story, Jonathan is in the dark about why his mother Sid disappeared from his life when he was nine, and how Sid came to be this man named Sydney, whom Jonathan slowly comes to know through multiple, languid trips to Trinidad. The confusion I feel is perhaps supposed to mimic Jonathan’s own confusion and jumbled up emotions as the story unfolds to both Jonathan and the reader. This is maybe a genius narrative device. But so far, it hasn’t made for pleasurable reading.
Yet, the story is intriguing enough that I want to keep going. I don’t give books I’m not enjoying much of a chance (I usually close them up after about 40 pages, never to return again), and for some reason, I want to see this one through. Maybe its the murder mystery that is starting to unfold. But that particularly plot point so far feels contrived, so I don’t think that’s it. I’m more inclined to think that its the haunting details contrasting a life in Trinidad with a life in Toronto. Toronto is rather aptly depicted as a sea of grey and snow, while Trinidad is oppressive in its tropicalness:
Day broke as I stood waiting in front of the arrivals building at the airport. A heavy greyness, portending rain any minute, hung in the sky. But then the low clouds on the distant horizon took shape with the light and slowly transformed into the outline of the Northern Range. Ahead, the parking lot emerged. A wide umbrella of almond trees shaded the doubles vendors who had already stationed themselves beneath, and from the branches of the trees the sound of quarrelling parakeets crescendoed with the dawning day. I watched the light creep over the mountain ranges, incising deep vertical ridges and bringing out of the darkness the rich variety of trees.
So, I’m going to keep on keeping on with this one. The prose, though somewhat stilted, is evocative and I’m interested enough to still be curious as to how the tale of Sydney and Jonathan’s lives will unfold. Perhaps eventually the story will start to move more forward than sideways.