Despite her Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Shipping News, Annie Proulx’s literary reputation lies with short stories. Her naked language and painfully focused delivery, make these stories shimmer, and burn their way into the memory. Her new book Barkskins could well be described as a collection of shorts due to its episodic nature: however, it is actually a novel spanning 717 pages and more than 300 years. But for all its extra space, is it as impactful?
The story starts in the 17th century, in the part of New France that became modern Canada. Employing a sophisticated narrative strategy of oscillating perspective, we work our way through time via two men’s family trees. Using these hereditary lines, Proulx narrates Canada’s history – a newly discovered world with virgin landscapes and forests – the victim of pillaging by Europeans in their capitalist quest.
We begin with two men: Rene Sel and Charles Duquet. These two French labourers chop down trees for a settler who promises them land and freedom in return for their service. Whilst at first, their mutual circumstance renders each man fairly indistinctive, it is their opposite character traits that ultimately leads to the adverse fate of their families. René, an obedient servant, is ordered to marry a M’ikmaw woman and ends up fathering several Indian children. Duquet escapes, anglicises his name and establishes his logging dynasty.
From this point on, Proulx leaps and bounds through the ensuing generations but the novel suffers from her reluctance to allow the reader any authorship over their own imagination. The very first page tells us how someone’s eyes “falsely indicated a vivacious nature.” Later, when we meet George Pickering, Proulx sets everything out for us again, making sure we’ve got the picture: “For years he had struggled against being pushed into this profession, saying he wished to go to sea, not as an officer but as a common sailor. However, he talked with Uncle Bernard who froze his bone marrow with stories of typhoons, men overboard and the capricious cruelty of captains. George was dissuaded and took his adventures to books.” It would have been nice to work some of this out for ourselves.
Saying this, Proulx does need to establish her character quickly. Many of them barely have time to draw breath, reveal their various flaws and make enemies before they die from the measles, smallpox, or in a shipwreck, or by scalping, botched amputations, cholera or occult tortures. The Sel family, are particularly unfortunate when it comes to grisly logging mishaps. Nothing and nobody is safe in Barkskins.
As with nearly everything Ms. Proulx writes, there is a great deal of learning from the pages of Barkskins. She imbues a staggering amount of detail into her work and you will absorb more here about cutting and sawing and pulping and shipping and estimating lumber yields than you might think possible or necessary. But it would be unfair to accuse the novel of being a victim of its research; one of the joys of Proulx’s writing is her loquaciousness and boy, these details really come to life when she’s describing landscapes. Her scenes are built up from similies and metaphors only from the strange and vibrant things within that specific world. The fish are so plentiful that rivers look “made of hard muscle.” The woods are alive: rivers are “snarling”, shrill mosquitoes “keening”, hills “exhaling” mist, trees “pulsing” with pollen.
As we middle the book, the forests begin to disappear and in their place stand European’s cities and marked out territories. From this point, Barkskins begins to shift. Where it took 150 pages to establish the first 35 years of Sel and Duquet’s lives in the old world, the last 80 pages of the novel cover more than 120 years. The narrative seems to shrink and it becomes apparent the story isn’t really about the two families, or about the characters, but about the forests. As the trees come down, the characters seem to recede in importance, revealing the novel’s message about the fragility of our world and our responsibilities as part of it. A message previously handled almost entirely as subtext is once again spelled out for us.
The book’s ending, in which a scientist of today solemnly warns about global warming and that “a great crisis is just ahead” feels limply open-ended. But for all its problems, for the most part, Annie Proulx is the sort of writer that possesses the authority, the menace and quality of prose to more or less carry the story off.