What does it mean to be a man? How do we tell our most intimate stories? In her provocative, sophisticated fourth novel, Shani Mootoo addresses these questions while reflecting on notions of home, identity, and personal empowerment.
Jonathan was raised in Toronto by two women – his British birth mother, India, and her Trinidadian partner, a painter named Siddhani. For reasons unknown at the time, Sid abandoned them when Jonathan was a child. As an adult, Jonathan searches the world for his lost parent, whom he eventually discovers has transitioned genders, and now lives in Trinidad as Sydney. When Sydney takes ill, Jonathan visits him, and the two men begin a long, slow process of coming to terms with both the present and the past.
Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab presents an uncommon perspective: that of an adult raised by queer parents. Mootoo, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Cereus Blooms at Night, mines rich territory: Sid’s immigrant experience and the impact of colonialism, differing models of masculine identity, and the creative process (Jonathan and India are both published authors, and Sydney keeps extensive journals).
The novel is fundamentally concerned with complicating the relationship between reader, text, and story. It commences with an excerpt from Sydney’s notebooks, followed by Jonathan’s visit, which is recounted in memoir form. Letters from Zain, a close female friend who played a critical role in Sydney’s transition, are woven into the narrative. When Zain takes an illicit lover, she writes to Sid, who later journals about it as Sydney. The entry is read by Jonathan, who recapitulates it in his memoir.
Multiple timelines run concurrently, reminding the reader that the past is always present, and our perceptions of one another are constantly mediated. Despite the book’s ambitious form, it is readable throughout. In rich and vivid descriptive prose, Mootoo portrays her characters’ journeys between countries and toward greater selfhood.