Annie Proulx may have kept her fans waiting fourteen years between novels, but with her new release Barkskins she has rewarded their loyalty with more than 700 epic pages spanning three centuries. Opening with the arrival of two indentured servants (René Sel and Charles Duquet) in the dense forests of New France in 1693, Barkskins tells the story of these two men and their descendants and the livelihoods forged through logging red cedars. Through them, in turn, she also tells the story of the rise of American capitalism, the ‘assimilation’ and marginalisation of the native Americans, and the environmental devastation of the continent.
I know Proulx can be a marmite writer, and if you haven’t liked her previous books you are very unlikely to enjoy this. I’m a Proulx fan, but I found this one harder work than her usual fare. Partly this is because it is so long; partly because the vastness of the story means we don’t have full connection and resolution in the successive generations – mostly, I fear, because life got in the way of my reading it properly. This isn’t a book to be read on buses and moments snatched between appointments, but one worthy of full and proper focus. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it – other than the ending, I did – but I wish I had saved it for a rainy few days off to immerse in it properly and do it justice.
We might start off in dense forest, but the lure of money drives these loggers forward into brave new worlds and adventures on the high seas – Europe, Asia, New Zealand and the Amazon basin are all depicted. As historical fiction, it’s done just how I like it – the encyclopaedic knowledge built up in over a decade of research is completely woven into the narrative, rather than having random facts crowbarred in just so they could be used. Sure you might have known that the possibility of increased risk taking opened up by the invention of corporations was a huge economic driver, but did you know that the importation of large amounts of coffee directly led to the working day becoming longer? Even more so I enjoy historical fiction of ‘small lives’, as if there is such a thing as an ordinary person. None of these characters are present when Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. are assassinated – they live their lives against the historical background, rather than players in the main events, as the vast majority of us do.
If you have read any Proulx you’ll know she bumped off characters with a regularity and brutalness that George R.R. Martin can only dream of emulating – happily for the ghoulish, Barkskins is no exception. The easy quashing of individuals, even as each successive generation of individuals steals something precious from the earth and damages it irreparably, is just one way of drawing our attention out from individual people and towards the vastness of nature. I hope everyone who reads this book realises how each generation never fully comprehended the scale of their own destructiveness; never took the simple steps to stop environmental destruction; looks at their own lives and realises that in a big picture scenario sometimes no one appears to be at fault because everyone is at fault – and makes some changes. There is no Planet B.
Barkskins is published by HarperCollins Fourth Estate and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.