THE TARTARUS HOUSE ON CRAB by George Szanto
“He’d thought about fire a couple of times some months ago, fire being, after all, his metier. A lot of softwood in that house, it’d go quickly. He’d have to get a burning permit. What, while the forest fire warning gauges all screamed Extreme? No, he’d come here for this, to tear it down. Fire was for his work, which was pleasure. Tearing down the house was a responsibility. Tartarus took his responsibilities seriously.”
Review by Roger Brunyate Â (MAR 16, 2011)
Jack Tartarus comes to his family house on Crab bent on destruction. What follows instead is a reconstruction of his life on this small island near Vancouver, a reuniting of family and neighbors, a closer understanding of those who have died, and the forging of new bonds.
The book begins in a cold anger, as Tartarus, a famous artist working with photography and fire, picks away at the siding of his well-built house with a crowbar — in revenge, he says, for the death of his parents. The opening has an awkward energy to it, as clumsy as the book’s title and as jagged as its cover. Well before the novel is over, though, “Tartarus” and “Crab” have become fully rounded portraits of a person and a place, and the cover no longer fits at all, requiring rather an atmospheric seascape or watercolor of a fine old wooden house standing proud in a clearing of tall pines. This transformation to warmth and understanding more than once brought tears to my eyes, though I wonder looking backÂ if the trajectory was not a little too predictable, too easy.
Because Szanto has a way of setting the reader in the middle of the action and filling in the back story later, this is a somewhat difficult book to follow at first, as characters are introduced without pedigrees and past incidents surface in cryptic references only to sink out of sight until later. This also makes it difficult to summarize, so I will confine myself to the first few chapters. We hear first about the losses. Jack’s parents, both dead, though we do not yet know how. His wife Maureen, obviously deeply loved. His sister Natalia, not dead, but moved away to the mainland with her musician daughter Justine. Jack’s closest friend, a former teacher named Don, had once been Natalia’s lover; he still lives on the island, in a small house near the water, his life almost fully occupied with looking after his father Frank, whose mind is going quickly. There is also a wild disheveled young woman who emerges from the woods, clawing and biting Jack in her desperation to haltÂ the destruction; she too will turn out to be a figure out of Jack’s past, though he does not recognize her at first.
All these people, alive or dead, we meet in the first chapter. The second chapter, surprisingly, steps back from the main story and follows Don on his nightly errand for a volunteer group called Friends in the Night, making a round of the local restaurants to pick up unused food for the local soup kitchen. The chapter will eventually further the story, because the owner of the last restaurant on the list, a vegetarian establishment called Eating Thyme, is a former hippie called Etain, who is well on her way to becoming Don’s acknowledged lover. But the chapter’s main purpose is to build a sense of the island as a living community, where people know each other’s business and care for one another. There is a similar section a few chapters later, about a store clerk nicknamed Turtle, a kind of ecological vigilante who sees himself as the guardian of the island’s balance. Although the cast of named characters in the book is relatively small, this sense of community is importantÂ to the regeneration that will touch almost all the principal figures before the end.
Yes, there are flaws. The plot depends upon our belief that Jack’s desire to tear down the house is implacable, and this does become difficult to sustain. There is also the question of his professional obsession with fire, which certainly works as a metaphor, but less easily as a literal ingredient in the plot. There are some awkward moments near the end when the novel flirts with becoming a ghost story, then shies away again with perhaps one too many rational explanations for things that might better have been left untied. But all of the characters grow and continue to grow in reality and warmth, their relationships develop as satisfying and believable, and the island of Crab emerges as a very pleasant place to live. Only I would change that book jacket!
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 1 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Brindle & Glass (March 1, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||George Szanto|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another from this publisher:
Catch Me When I Fall by Patricia Westerhof
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Islands International Investigations (written with Sandy Frances Duncan) :