Barkskins by Annie Proulx

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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Annie Proulx

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