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 back if the trajectory was not a little too predictable, too easy.
Szanto's way of setting the reader in the middle of the action and filling in the back story later, makes this a somewhat difficult book to follow at first, as characters are introduced without pedigrees and past incidents surface in cryptic references. In the first chapter alone, we hear of Jack's parents and his beloved wife Maureen, all now dead. He thinks of his sister Natalia, moved away to the mainland with her musician daughter Justine. He revisits his closest friend, Don, Natalia's former lover, who still lives on the island, 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 halt the destruction; she too will turn out to be a figure from Jack's past, though he does not recognize her at first.
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'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 important 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 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. Yet 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. But I would change that book jacket!