If I had to pick one book that managed to capture the essence of 2020 without trying to speak about 2020 – a year we’ll be processing for decades to come – Hour of the Crab by Patricia Robertson would be up there. A collection of short stories dealing with many problems which will look familiar: racism, immigration, environmental devastation, dying cultures, and cosmic mysteries. Bordering on speculative fiction in some stories, Robertson takes these global issues, and walks them a step farther, into not-so-distant futures which fit neatly with our reality as we know it.
The book is divided into three sections: the first and longest, Hour of the Crab, contains four loosely connected stories, starting off with the story which lends its name to the section and the book. The second, Signs and Portents, steps away from the world of the first section and into three different near-futures with strange omens for their protagonists – but few answers. And the third section, entitled Holding Patterns, we step into stories written about very specific cultures, and the inevitability of change.
Thematically, Hour of the Crab (the section) is the most pointed in its social commentary: the titular story starts with Kate and Gavin, a couple from Canada on vacation in Spain, when Kate comes across the body of a refugee in the sand. She becomes obsessed with trying to find his family, so they know that he died: a journey which leads her husband to continue their vacation without her, and introduces us to the other characters which link to the other stores in this section. Enrique, an officer who deals with the detainment of refugees entering Spain and suffers a crisis of conscience when a young woman gives birth just before they’re found comes briefly into his custody; Lalla, a young woman in Morocco who translates for Kate in her village, and looks forward to returning to her city life; and Nico, Enrique’s grandson, who joins a resistance movement in a dystopian Spain.
Signs and Portents is looser: strange shells appearing where they shouldn’t and strange symbols appearing on Babs’ skin; a ghost appearing in the yard of a travelling nurse, and a fire fighter and his wife bringing a child into their world which is ruled by forest fires. While each story is sad and unsettling, the characters are accepting of the changes in their reality, and treat the happenings in their stories as the normal progression of things – all occur in near futures, which is slightly unsettling. Robertson’s steps into this kind of dystopia are masterful: so many leap from what we know to the new world, instead of showing the hints and warning signs.
The final section, Holding Patterns, takes the slow dystopian creep and veers away from it. The first story in this section, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, which is my favourite in this book, is written like a parable, with the daughter, a fine calligrapher, locked away to ponder her sinful pride. The second story, The Master of Salt, follows a monk who works in salt flats, harvesting fleur de sel, and the lessons he learns from this task. And the final story, The Old Speech, tells the story of the last speaker of an old language, who carves the words of his language on his house, with no one to understand him.
Hour of the Crab is fascinating and dark, playing with the edge of what is real and what could be. And that’s the best part of these stories: the slow slide into dystopia, rather than the jump from now to something we can’t see on the horizon yet.
About the Author
Patricia Robertson grew up in British Columbia and received her MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. She is the author of three books of stories, including City of Orphans, a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize. She lives in Winnipeg.
- Publisher : Goose Lane Editions (Feb. 9 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 248 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1773101609
- ISBN-13 : 978-1773101606
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