I was excited to have the opportunity to read Barkskins, the forthcoming novel by Annie Proulx, which is the first of her novels I have read. Having heard great things about her previous works I had high hopes for her latest novel, a sprawling epic about two families and their part in the taking down of the world’s forests.
‘It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning.’
At over 700 pages long this does appear to be a daunting read but if you are happy to invest the time then you will be rewarded with a fascinating story told in great detail. The events in the novel take place over more than three centuries with the story beginning in 1693. We meet two woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, as they travel to New France to make a living. This is the start of their remarkable story as they face extraordinary hardship in their pursuit of fortune as they dream of bigger things. As Duquet travels the world Rene Sel marries an Indian healer and together they have children, their family becoming of mixed culture – something which proves significant generations later. From this point Barkskins tells the story of all the children and grandchildren of these two men, watching how each generation lives and works with the backdrop of the forest, the forest that remains under threat from the men who seek to destroy it for their own gain.
‘Were not Rene Sel’s children and grandchildren as he had been, like leaves that fall on moving water, to be carried where the stream takes them?’
Proulx has created a fascinating account of the lives of these two lineages and there are so many characters to meet over the course of this epic tale. Whilst I found it a little tricky at times to keep track of who was who the individual stories of each character were interesting, and in some cases, heartbreaking. It provides a lot of insight into the lives of the families and the challenges they would face, particularly the difficult living conditions and the threats of illness and injury. There is then the impact that the families themselves had on the environment with the logging and deforestation taking place. There are so many emotions covered through these characters – some are greedy and vengeful, others show compassion. There were parts of the novel I found more gripping than others and my preference was towards the family life side of the story which I found more engaging. It is clear that a lot of hard work has gone into the historical and cultural elements which make the story vivid and create an excellent sense of time and place.
‘The entire atmosphere – the surrounding air, the intertwined roots, the humble ferns and lichens, insects and diseases, the soil and water, weather. All these parts seem to play together in a kind of grand wild orchestra. A forest living for itself rather than the benefit of humankind’
I enjoyed reading Barkskins. I found it to be a detailed and insightful novel which perfectly captures the lives of these two families, their friends and foes. I went away from this novel knowing much more about the world, the challenges that were faced centuries ago and those we still face today.
Barkskins is to be published on 16th June 2016 by Fourth Estate. Many thanks to Matt Clacher at Fourth Estate for providing a proof copy for review.