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Fiction Cultural Heritage

He Drown She in the Sea

by (author) Shani Mootoo

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Aug 2006
Cultural Heritage, World War II, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2006
    List Price

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Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Guanagaspar around the time of the Second World War, and in modern-day Vancouver, He Drown She in the Sea, fulfills the promise of Shani Mootoo’s internationally acclaimed debut novel, Cereus Blooms at Night.

At the centre of the story is Harry St. George, the sonof a laundress, and the unrequited love he bears for a woman, Rose, the daughter of a wealthy man, whom he knew as a child. Looking back to his past, evoking the rich culture and texture of his Caribbean boyhood, and the life of his mother, Dolly, Harry reveals his friendship with Rose, and the events that will continue to haunt him across time and place. When Rose arrives suddenly in Vancouver, where Harry has built a hard-earned life for himself, the two embark on an impossible affair that will have tragic consequences.

He Drown She in the Sea is a vividly evoked, subtly described story of love, class division, and the unrelenting hold of the past, told by one of our most gifted writers. Shani Mootoo joins the front ranks of Carribean literature, in the company of Austin Clarke and Dionne Brand.

About the author

Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad, and lives in Canada. She holds an MA in English from the University of Guelph, writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist whose work has been exhibited locally and internationally. Mootoo's critically acclaimed novels include Polar Vortex, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki's Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night. She is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Arts Award, a Chalmers Fellowship Award, and the James Duggins Outstanding Midcareer Novelist Award. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, and includes the collection, The Predicament of Or. In 2021 Mootoo was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Western University. Her work has been long- and shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Dublin IMPAC Award, and the Booker Prize. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Shani Mootoo's profile page


  • Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Excerpt: He Drown She in the Sea (by (author) Shani Mootoo)

How Madam’s Mouth Runneth Over
It was not yet the end of the rainy season, and the air in the house bristled with all manner of trouble. Even though Piyari had already cleaned everything that same day, Madam took up the dust cloth and wiped counters, pictures, ornaments, and furniture as she spoke. Perspiration glistened on Madam’s forehead and upper lip. Rivulets of it escaped from under her uncoiffed hair, slipped down her greying temples, and pooled about her neck, causing the plain gold-plate chain she wore to shimmer.

“Who would have thought, Piyari, that so late in life a person could get another chance? Look: I have two adult children, and with no warning whatsoever, in what should be the downward slope of life, a light light up, brighter than the sun, to point me in a whole new direction.”

Madam crumpled the dust cloth into a ball, took a quick and deep breath, and pressed the dirty rag to her face. Piyari, startled, leaped forward and as quickly withdrew, realizing at once that it wasn’t really possible for Madam to suffocate herself in this manner. She grimaced. How could Madam talk of happiness in one breath, she wondered, and in the next bury her face in that dirty rag full of dust and that white powdery mould that covered everything in the muggy months? But she was becoming used to the unusual behaviour. Madam dragged the cloth across her face and, in so doing, erased the thick application of reddish-brown colour from her lips. A dark wetness blossomed about the armpits of the yellow silk blouse Piyari had ironed for her just that morning.

“Let me say once and for all: from the day I left my mother’s house and got married, nobody has bothered to ask me what I think or what I feel. Nobody in this country can imagine that I might have feelings. Not all those people who like to take pictures of Boss and me and put them in their papers, not even Boss, and certainly not the children. I pass my whole life in the service of those two children, and now look: I wouldn’t see Jeevan unless I hand out formal invitation to him and his wife. And Cassie? You could understand why my only daughter had to go so far away, on the other side of Canada, to live? Well, if I didn’t know better before, better and me have at long last become acquaintances. Everything change, Piyari. I am not stepping backward – I cannot go back to the way it used to be. Is time for a fresh start, in truth.”

Piyari had learned to spot a story coming. She slid one of the caned high-back chairs away from the dining table and plopped herself down. An hour or two could pass like this: Piyari sitting, turning her whole body sometimes, sometimes just her head, to face Madam as Madam hustled, cleaned, and talked. And the more Madam provoked her future with stories of the summer past, the harder, the faster she swept, dusted, and polished furniture, cleaned cupboards, threw out old and long-unused household items. Madam’s confidences bestowed much importance upon Piyari, but she knew well that such a privilege had the potential to one day prove burdensome. Still, this revolt brewing in her employer’s house, right before her very eyes, she relished. And besides, the house, Piyari noticed, had never — at least not before that summer of which Madam babbled — been so spotless.

Madam put down the cloth and picked up a ceramic vase rendered in the shape of a fish that had leaped out of the sea high into the air and was captured by the artist just as it hit the water on its arched back. She lifted her head to the ceiling, closed her eyes, and ran a finger along the pale, curved belly line of the fish, and a fingernail into the deep blue iridescent grooves of its well-wrought tail fin. The high-pitched squeal of fingernail against glazed ceramic broke her reverie. She squeezed the unyielding fish with both her hands, then shook the vase. There was a sluggish, guttural swish of old water. It had been almost a month since there were fresh flowers in the house. The water was at least that old, and surely, bitter with the odour of rotted chrysanthemum remains. Madam put her nose to the gaping mouth of the fish and sniffed. Piyari straightened herself, ready to answer to the accusation, ready to get back to her business of housecleaning, of doing chores like washing out that vase. But Madam did not even wrinkle her nose. Instead, with sudden swiftness, as if she had smelled a revelation in the belly of the fish, she gathered up and twisted her shoulder-length hair into a bun. With pins fetched erratically from the pocket of her skirt, she secured the bun, whipped the cloth off the table again, and began wiping, wiping, wiping every ornament in sight. Piyari made a mental note to wash out the fish vase.

Madam executed a sharp about-face and marched into the kitchen. Piyari jumped up and followed. Madam opened the door of the freezer compartment and stared for a long time at its contents. Piyari knew if she stayed still long enough, Madam would begin to reveal more about that holiday on the west coast of Canada and that the refrigerator/freezer would be as clean as the day it was bought, without her having to lift a finger. When Madam started pulling out frozen packages of meat and plastic containers of leftovers and piling them up on the kitchen table, Piyari leaned up against the counter and relaxed.

“What we keeping leftovers for? Throw them out. Look at this fridge. Throw everything out. Don’t keep a damn thing. I have to say it yet again? Is time for a fresh start.”

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