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He Drown She in the Sea

by Shani Mootoo

Shani Mootoo’s second novel, He Drown She in the Sea, set on the imaginary Caribbean island of Guanagaspar, is a tale of lovers stymied by class divisions and circumstance, star-crossed in a very post-colonial, contemporary sense. Skipping through time in its pursuit of the complex connection between childhood friends Rose and Harry, both of Indian descent, the novel explores rifts familial, racial, and political in the form of an assured and sinuous – and often gripping – tale.

Rose is the daughter of Madam Sangha, a wealthy woman with a philandering husband. Harry is the son of Madam’s servant, Dolly St. George, a poor widow from a small village of black fishermen and their families. As young children in the 1940s, Harry and Rose know nothing but the joy and sensuality of play in and around the Sangha house. A visit to Harry’s house, a rickety shack by the sea whose outside walls have been surreptitiously “wallpapered” by a bold and unenlightened decorator, sullies this innocence.

The incremental dawning of class consciousness and the accompanying shame that ensues are brilliantly evoked here, as Harry struggles to understand why his home is not only different but also inferior to Rose’s. Much of the violent and romantic tension between the characters seems to spiral out from this fateful visit, the fall out of which takes Harry to the B.C. coast, where he settles and prospers later in life.

Mootoo’s invented country is an authorial choice that begs questions, especially since this is not a fantastical story. Yet the tenor and rhythms of her people’s speech are a seamless, lively merge of matter-of-fact and allusions to fable. And the fictional land is an apt fit for the notion of home as a projection of all of Harry’s deepest fears and yearnings, placing it squarely in the powerful realm of myth. You won’t find Mootoo’s Guanagaspar in any Google search, but its tricky, persuasive, and sensual emotional terrain makes it more real than anything confined to the two dimensions of a map.