The Fifth Head of Cerberus
The three novellas collected under this title pose, at their core, the question of identity – and you can (and should, if you have the time) read a whole essay on this. The narrative in all 3 takes place on the twin plates of St. Anne & St. Croix, colonized by the French some time ago. We are not particularly concerned with the historical aspects of the colonization, but more with the day-to-day life on these planets: St. Anne – akin to the Wild West and St Croix – closer to the civilized East. At first glance, anyway.
The Fifth head of Cerberus, the title story, takes place on St Croix entirely and starts off as a childhood memory, but we soon realize that it’s nothing as simple as that. The narrator unveils a world where slavery is the norm, trading in children is a common occupation and a scientist funds his laboratory and experiments by maintaining a brothel.
I had started detailing the plot points, but it now strikes me that I’d spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, because the 3 stories put together reveal as much as they hide about these twin planets and have you speculating and wondering on what is true and what is a myth.
This is my first encounter with Gene Wolfe, but it’s been a very exciting one and I’m definitely looking forward to getting to know him better. In fact, the only (tiny) piece of criticism I could throw at this book is related to the fact that the second novella (A story) tends to be somewhat meandering. It makes sense, seeing as how it tells about life on St Anne before the colonization and takes the form of a legend really – but it’s still a bit dull and disengaging at times.