Deep in the forest…

Annie Proulx’s latest novel Barkskins is just wonderful. At 736 pages it is a very satisfying and surprisingly quick read, charting the lives of two families from the 1660s to 2013. One of the reasons it is fast-paced is the brutal reality of life without modern medicines – if you are hurt or sick in the morning, for many of the 400 years this tale spans, you are usually dead by tea-time; and so the story jumps to the next person and place.

Both families begin with two men who leave France to go to work as indentured foresters in the seemingly infinite forests of New France (later Quebec). One has a family with a local indigenous woman, this family continues to live close to the land, working as foresters and fishermen. The other man runs off and taking full advantage of the risks and opportunities that come his way becomes a grand old timber baron, his employees and family cutting their way through huge, unimaginable swathes of new world timber – including the fabled Kauri forests in the far north of New Zealand. Members of the two families orbit one another, sometimes meeting, sometimes passing each other by, all unaware of the common start their patriarchs shared. From this end of the 400 years, the hubris of the squandering of the resource these enormous forests were seems sad and short-sighted, and a little like a warning for our own reckless times. Even thinking of them as a resource, a useful thing, seems wrong in light of the way Proulx evokes their presence as a living kind of a creature, earthbound but vital and full of meaning – their loss is hard to comprehend.

The research underlying the story is sound, Proulx apparently spent years gathering information  and tales about forestry and the lives of the people engaged in it. The descriptions about how to cut down the different trees are fascinating – it was only when I saw the image on the cover (below) that I understood the scale of the trees that they were dealing with, in the previously untouched forests of North America. The writing is beautiful: spare and elegant, dark, mysterious but alive, like a forest…



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