Barkskins

Annie Proulx

Barkskins
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Barkskins

Annie Proulx

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a  seigneur,  for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters - barkskins. Rene suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi'kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.

Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years - their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid - in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope - that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.

Review

Since the publication of Annie Proulx’s last book, almost a decade ago, details have filtered through that she was working on an epic about the wood trade in the late 1600s. The appearance of an excerpt of it in the New Yorker and the subsequent interview threw more light onto the project, with Proulx saying the genesis for the novel came to her 30 years ago, when she came across a sign in an empty field saying something like: ‘In this place once stood the finest white pine forest in the world.’ She was deeply moved, and the sign and place have stayed with her ever since.

Opening in 1693 in New France – the colony France held in North America – Barkskins follows two men, René Sel and Charles Duquet, and their descendents over hundreds of years. The two men have come to the new world in servitude to a French lord, or Seigneur: after working for him for three years they expect to receive their own portion of what the Europeans have decreed ‘unclaimed land’. The idea of ownership is a question at the heart of this novel. The punishing landscape, harsh weather conditions, and the destructive presence of the settlers ensure things don’t entirely go as planned. While Charles Duquet eventually makes his escape to form his own wood-trading company, René Sel is persuaded into marriage with a local Mi’kwmaw woman.

With the dual narratives of these two families – the Duquets tied up in their capitalist endeavours and the Sel descendants making their way as an indigenous family in the face of colonisation – a picture slowly comes together of the horrible exploitation industry can bring. Told in clear and unsentimental prose, Proulx’s 700-page novel is an epic in the truest sense of the word, and an incredible achievement of a novel.


Chris Somerville works for the online team at Readings.

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