Given that, let’s consider the main elements of Moving Forwards Sideways Like A Crab:
Those bullet points are the background of the plot — Moving Sideways Like A Crab is set in the present tense so all of that comes from back stories which form the bulk of the novel. After a few “here is what really happened” exchanges with Jonathan, Syd dies and the Toronto son is left as the key family member to look after the mourning and cremation. Syd has not just left a final few verbal stories, he has also left letters and journals that Jonathan digs into, trying to understand how his mother “Sid” became his generational parent “Sydney”.
A prologue from one of Sydney’s notebooks outlines the challenge that he feels he is facing in setting all this in motion as his death approaches:
In the end, I hope that Jonathan will understand why, after coming to Canada in search of some sort of authenticity, after living in Toronto for more than three decades, I returned home — I returned, that is, to live again in Trinidad. But how do I explain it so that he doesn’t think I ran away, gave up, failed?
One more chance is all I ask for. But time is against me, and there is so much to tell.
Contrast that with the following excerpt from Jonathan (Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab is structured as a memoir from him, although it frequently digresses into Sydney’s notebooks and straightforward narrative) as his plane is about to land in Trinidad. This flight is taking place only two months after his last visit — Sydney’s looming death has changed all schedules.
It amuses me how the instant the fasten-seatbelts sign is turned off during the flight from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidadians get up and strut about. They seem to know one another; they congregate in the aisles unabashedly airing their business, telling jokes, heckling each other or reminiscing. Their anticipation is palpable. Some begin the journey as strangers, but through conversations struck up in the interminable lineups at the airport or during the five-hour flight itself, they inevitably learn that they know someone in common or are even related. I have always envied their ease and willing camaraderie, and having been to their island numerous times over the past decade, have often wanted to contribute my penny’s worth; but discretion — on account of being just a visitor to the island — has prevailed.
(A digression, which won’t make sense to anybody but Canadian visitors here, but I suspect will strike a bell with many of that group: I was totally taken with that paragraph from a purely Canadian perspective. I’m not a Nova Scotian, but I have flown into and out of Halifax many times — on every flight, it seemed to me that it took less than an hour for the three people in the row behind me to discover a common friend (or enemy) and, more than once, a relative. That is a sense of community that not much of the world gets to experience.)
I have chosen those excerpts quite deliberately to illustrate the high expectations that Mootoo’s opening pages produced for me. On the one hand, a dying individual struggling to explain (perhaps even justify?) her/his past decisions. And on the other a “traveller” — certainly a knowledgable one, but someone who realizes he is entering a culture that he may know but is not part of.
That promised a lot, particularly given my enthusiasm for Valmiki’s Daughter with its similar elements. Unfortunately, I have to report that, for this reader at least, Moving Forward Sideways Like A Crab does not deliver on the promise.
Much of the narrative of the novel revolves around Jonathan trying to come to terms with why Sid did what she did to become Sydney. While I can certainly appreciate that that is a compelling topic for some readers, I think for most it is a case of “looking at” rather than “being part of”. And I am afraid that Jonathan, as he proceeds along this final path of life with Sid/Sydney, shrinks, rather than grows, in interest.
And while Trinidad is always part of the story (indeed, part of my problem is that Toronto and lives there — both Sid/Syd’s and Jonathan’s — never get addressed by the author), it does not becomes three-dimensional — local custom and behavior are never investigated beyond how they played with the high-school Sid, the dying Sydney or his funeral rites. As I read the novel, I frequently found it comparing not well with Sam Selvon’s final Moses novel.
Shani Mootoo is a very talented writer — and I salute her attempts to produce books that include conflicts of immigration with its challenging attitudes and circumstances, the difficulty of dealing with both old and new cultures and, perhaps most pressingly, sexuality. For this reader, it worked very well in Valmiki’s Daughter — this novel falls well short of that mark. I certainly do not fault the Giller Jury for including this on the longlist; neither do I dispute their decision not to advance it.