In Crosshairs, the second novel by Toronto writer and playwright Catherine Hernandez, the distinction between dystopia and reality becomes increasingly imperceptible. Hernandez presents the disintegration of Canada into a bifurcated society of haves and have-nots, a story made all the more terrifying for how much of it has already come to pass.
Hernandez’s previous novel, Scarborough, was longlisted for the 2018 edition of Canada Reads and is soon to be a motion picture. Her follow-up focuses on Kay, a queer Black drag queen. After floods destroy much of Canada’s infrastructure and industry, a movement called the Renovation is born to protect the interest of “True Canadians.” The Renovation uses a militia known as the Boots to control Others – Black people, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ2S+ folk, and people with disabilities. In a campaign of state-sanctioned violence, Others are systematically killed, beaten, and imprisoned. Kay, and Others like him, are forced into hiding, navigating a network of “safe” basements and attics to stay alive.
The natural disaster at the story’s outset highlights social and economic divides. The floods prompt a national discourse about those deserving of government assistance and a place in the weakened social system. Peaceful protests and demonstrations are met with violent police response. Mass arrests quickly lead to the implementation of forced labour camps. The disintegration of Kay’s life – from rising drag star to a hideaway who “can’t post a selfie asking others to bear witness to this invisibility” – happens at neck-breaking speed.
In prose that is sharp and honest, the novel serves as a glimpse into the anxieties of existing as other (or “Other”) in daily life. Each successive chapter seems to reveal something uglier, and the sense of urgency this brings to the story is almost intimidating. Over the course of the novel, the author uses unwavering frankness to evoke both optimism and unease. The result is a narrative that charms readers into leaning in and then startles them into confronting a miserable set of circumstances.
Readers are consistently reminded of how accelerated the destruction of “normal” life is through Kay’s frequent recollections of the past. Kay’s account acts as an imaginary “whisper letter” to Evan, the partner from whom he was separated as the Renovation began. As Kay spins this letter, he often recalls important moments in his relationship, as well as formative experiences from his youth that he had not yet had the chance to share with Evan. The immediacy of these events for Kay is tangible.
Kay is a warm protagonist, against all odds. Though his world is crumbling, he remains a strong and persistent force in the novel, with no shortage of heart for those around him. Readers will be enveloped in the joy of his self-discovery and fearful at the threats to his safety.
Secondary characters are just as vibrant and lively. The established drag stars Kay meets in the time before the Renovation introduce him to the world of costume and confidence, while offering him a sense of family and community. Bahadur, a transgender refugee Kay meets in hiding, highlights the ways living in fear can make good people angry and volatile. In comparison, Liv and Beck, the allies helping organize and fight against the Renovation, fall slightly flat. Their backstories are well developed and interesting, but they ultimately feel accessible and familiar in a way that renders them archetypes instead of individuals.
Crosshairs stresses the potential for evil in all of us and the impact that this evil could have if allowed to flourish. Hernandez underlines just how easily her near-future dystopia could become a near-future reality. Indeed, the novel underscores that what’s dystopian fiction for some is already a reality for others. In this aspect, Crosshairs is not an easy read, for either queer or racialized readers who may be reminded of historical and contemporary affronts and assaults to their communities or for those readers of privilege bearing witness to them and reckoning with their own complicity.
Despite this, Crosshairs holds love as a powerful core motivator. It is full of loss and anger but still brimming with the joy of first romance, warmth of community, power of friendship, and importance of courage and pride. Crosshairs leaves readers with two promises. The first is that change is possible. If people with privilege can be motivated to take action against systemic oppression, souls can be saved and lives can be spared. The second promise is that without change, we are hurtling toward disaster. Consider this book a call to action. A demand for change, before it is too late.