Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Fourth Estate, 14th June 2016
E-book, 736 pages
*My copy supplied by the publisher via Netgalley.
As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.
Annie Proulx's new novel is about devastation, both cultural and environmental. Over the course of 700 intensively researched pages and 300 years it charts the story of the colonization of North America, and the landscapes and ways of life it destroyed, from the perspectives of two very different immigrant families. It is huge and densely peopled, boasting moments of tender brilliance that are ultimately, sadly, overwhelmed by the repetitive drone of facts and names, and the glacial drift of time.
Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in New France in 1693, indentured labourers bound to serve the eccentric Seignuer Trépagny for a term of three years. At the end of their indenture they may claim their own plot of land from the thick, endless forest around them, starting a new life away from the poverty of the Old World. Until then they must clear the forest, cutting down trees in order to plant crops and civilise the land. It is back-breaking, demoralising work - there are so many trees; endless numbers of them - in a hostile climate and far from home. Apart from the seigneur the only other human faces belong to Trépagny's native Mi'kmaq 'wife' Mari and her children. Living at close quarters but set apart, they occupy two worlds moving back and forth between their tribal loyalties and the promise of western riches.
Duquet and Sel are vastly different. Duquet is grasping, ambitious and unscrupulous to a fault, while Sel is gentle-hearted, honest, a rough man but good. While the former soon absconds from Trepagny's camp, the latter stays. Eventually he marries Mari, fathers children with her and lives out his life on a patch of land that he (and later his sons) have cleared with their own hands. He starts a dynasty of Sels, half Mi'kmaq, half French, who are bound to the forest in a myriad of ways, as surely as Rene himself was indentured. Duquet meanwhile rises to dizzy heights; making a fortune in commercial logging he reinvents himself as Charles Duke, a merchant of great fame. He marries well, an Old World wife with excellent connections, and builds a business that will, in time, claim swathes of forest from New England to New Zealand.
Barkskins' cast expands exponentially from generation to generation, as Sels and Dukes are born, adopted, married, lost, found and finally die. The confusion of brothers and sisters, of uncles and cousins, of third wives and adopted sons is boggling. With each new iteration of the dynasties it becomes harder and harder to recall their bloodlines, to trace their descent and to bond with a constantly renewing field of personalities. The backdrop however is constant: the awe-inspiring expanse of hardwood forest that provides both their livelihoods - the Sels as lowly loggers; the Dukes as kings (and queens) of the timber industry - and which is slowly being consumed by greed and by ignorance.
There is much in the book to praise, in particular some vignettes that stand out in the long reading of it. For example, Charles Duquet's ridiculous almost endearing pride in the purchase of a grandiose wig in Paris; already several years out of fashion he insists on a style that represents success, wealth and dignity in his childhood memories. Several generations later the wig is rediscovered in an attic by two small boys who, terrified by such a monstrous object, throw it out of a window. The birds carry it off in wisps to make their spring nests. The prose can be lovely too, when describing both the natural world of the forest and man-made cultures. Eighteenth century Amsterdam in a heat wave is "swollen like a cracker in hot milk"; the ships in Boston harbour in the early 1900s are "wooden leviathans, ropestrung like musical instruments, shimmering with raw salt." The themes of the book boom out loud and clear. The Duquets and Sels are complicit in an ecological disaster of extraordinary proportions, a legacy of the abuse of nature for commercial gain that we are now beginning to pay the price for.
Proulx charts the story of the deforestation of her country with a dogged and exhausting relentlessness. She clearly points the finger at the Judeo-Christian (and Western) ideology of dominion. "The newcomers did not care to understand the strange new country beyond taking whatever turned a profit," she writes, "They knew only what they knew. The forest was there for them." The holistic Mi'kmaq beliefs and ways of Sels' descendants are chewed up and spit out by the commercial imperative wholly embraced by the Dukes. It doesn't take a subtle mind to work out where Proulx's sympathies lie. We are treated to page after page of meticulous research, line after line of info-dumping about logging technologies, land surveying, timber processing. The forest is not so much a character of the book as it's moral, with the characters that move through it and over it as mouths to speak the environmental message. It was always going to be a challenge to make such a complex, multi-generational saga work; even more of a challenge when it's burdened with so many facts and freighted with anger. The finished product is, to put it plainly, disappointing. The light moments, the individual characters, are subsumed by the polemical narrative, lost amidst the sound of innumerable axes cutting down innumerable trees.
I finished the book, finally after weeks of determined reading, with a flush of relief. I know there are those who have found their investment in it entirely worthwhile, but for me the determination to make an important point churned together with the workings of the novel, set neither at its best advantage.