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Book Review: Moving Foward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo



By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

moving forward sideways like a crab


Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Shani Mootoo

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-67622-9

Pub Date: April 29, 2014


Summary from the Publisher:

From the author of Cereus Blooms at Night and Valmiki’s Daughter, both nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, comes a haunting and courageous new novel. Written in vibrant, supple prose that vividly conjures both the tropical landscape of Trinidad and the muted winter cityscape of Toronto, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab is a passionate eulogy to a beloved parent, and a nuanced, moving tale about the struggle to embrace the complex realities of love and family ties.

Jonathan Lewis-Adey was nine when his parents, who were raising him in a tree-lined Toronto neighbourhood, separated and his mother, Sid, vanished from his life. It was not until he was a grown man, and a promising writer with two books to his name, that Jonathan finally reconnected with his beloved parent-only to find, to his shock and dismay, that the woman he’d known as “Sid” had morphed into an elegant, courtly man named Sydney. In the decade following this discovery, Jonathan made regular pilgrimages from Toronto to visit Sydney, who now lived quietly in a well-appointed retreat in his native Trinidad. And on each visit, Jonathan struggled to overcome his confusion and anger at the choices Sydney had made, trying with increasing desperation to rediscover the parent he’d once adored inside this familiar stranger. As the novel opens, Jonathan has been summoned urgently to Trinidad where Sydney, now aged and dying, seems at last to offer him the gift he longs for: a winding story that moves forward sideways as it slowly peels away the layers of Sydney’s life. But soon it becomes clear that when and where the story will end is up to Jonathan, and it is he who must decide what to do with Sydney’s haunting legacy of love, loss, and acceptance.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo is a quiet and lucid narrative about a woman named Sidhanni Mahale who yearns to elucidate the truth behind the choice she had to make to abandon Jonathan Lewis-Adey, the son she raised and fostered with her former and long-time partner, India, of 10 years in downtown Toronto before their relationship abruptly came to an end.

In Jonathan’s personal search for the mother he lost as a child, he discovers instead that the mother he knew and remembered as “Sid,” has transformed herself physically into a man who now goes by the name, “Sydney,” and lives in his native birthplace, Trinidad.

Over a nine-year period, and then again, Jonathan returns to Sydney’s side in Trinidad as he lay aged and dying, trying to reconcile the truth of his mother’s original disappearance from not only his life, but also from her own gender from birth into a life-altering decision that ultimately changes and rectifies her sexual identity into a male one.

Much of the narrative is written in personal journal entries or letter correspondence between Sydney and his best friend and long time, secret love, Zain. The letters along with the journal entries reflect the longevity of their friendship and Sydney’s deep affection for Zain, as well as her repressed desire.

While the pacing of the novel in itself is rather slow, the narrative is sentimental and somewhat lyrical, returning often to the storytelling of a life-changing walk towards the clinic where “Sid” eventually began to undergo the process of physically changing into a man.

Much of the novel is dedicated to this journey, its struggle, its tension, its anticipation—its necessity for the main character. And in that explanation, though layered behind the backdrop of growing up and living in two very different cultural environments: Trinidad and Toronto; two opposing genders: female and male; the story which urges to tell itself is one of enduring love for a son that was let go too soon.

In this, Jonathan discovers for himself a “re-discovering” of the woman and the memory of the woman he was so attached to as a child, and the man that woman has become. Jonathan, too, discovers his own liminality, a white man who has grown up most of his life in Toronto, Canada, but whose love for his mother and her native country of Trinidad, has also greatly influenced him and has a special place for him culturally. He is of two places as much as “Sid” and/or “Sydney” is of two genders, once a woman who transitions into man.

While the plot is light with exception to the emotional trauma of Zain’s “unsolved” death by home intrusion for Sydney, much of the book is character-driven told primarily through journal reflections.

There is Sid, whose love and desire for Zain and later other women was only exemplified by what she felt was a betrayal of her own body, one that was born as a woman, but undeniably desired to be a man.

There is Zain, whose love and acceptance of Sid surpassed their geographical and cultural differences, while nurturing a lifelong friendship that perplexed, if also frustrated a number of people in their lives even though Zain herself, proclaimed by her relationships and through her marriage that she was a heterosexual.

There were Sid’s parents who were at most, perplexed by their daughter’s ambiguity, but tolerant and understanding of who she was, up until their own deaths.

There is Gita, Sid’s sister whose intolerance was made evident not only by their emotional distance, but by her inability in the end to attend her sister’s/brother’s funeral.

And also India, Jonathan’s birth mother and Sid’s former partner who had become exasperated with Sid’s slow and gradual change into masculinity and eventually decided to become partners with a man later on in life.

And Jonathan, a sensitive man whose attachment to Sid propels him to travel to Trinidad numerous times over nine years, ends up not only reconciling with Sid as a parent, but becomes the primary witness to the story behind her gender transformation, and later the primary person to perform the last rites for Sydney’s funeral.

It is overall, an introspective novel that spends a lot of time reflecting on the past, focusing on Sydney’s love for Zain and his desire to be a man. In listening to Sydney’s stories, Jonathan learns as much as made possible, the truth of Sydney’s complicated feelings as a person and her/his unrelenting love for him as a son.


Characters: 3 stars

Plot: 3 stars

Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars

Dialogue: 3 stars

Pacing: 3 stars

Cover Design: 3 stars


Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Doubleday Canada for providing me with a copy of Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author:

Shani Mootoo. (c) Photo by Martin Schwalbe.
Shani Mootoo. (c) Photo by Martin Schwalbe.


Shani Mootoo is the author of the novels Cereus Blooms at Night, which was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the B.C. Book Award for Fiction; He Drown She in the Sea, which was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; and most recently, Valmiki’s Daughter, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Mootoo was born in Trinidad and grew up there and in Ireland. She immigrated to Vancouver two decades ago, and lives with her partner near Toronto.

– From book jacket


To learn more about Shani, you may visit her page on Wikipedia.


Do you know and love someone who is part of the LGBT community?

What do you think it feels like to feel “betrayed by one’s own body?”

If you read the book, “Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab” by Shani Mootoo, do you think Sid’s romantic love was reciprocated on some level by her best friend, Zain? Why or why not?


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