Book review: in Barkskins, Annie Proulx gets lost in the relentless march of history
Proulx’s hefty novel begins with the early days of the French in North America, exploring how dynasties are made and broken, and the painful relationships of colonists and First Nations
by Annie Proulx
All novels are about time in one way or another, and thus all novels are about mortality. In a book as long as Annie Proulx’s – 700-plus pages that travel from the end of the 17th century to almost the present day – the reader experiences time in an additional sense; not merely as a long act of engagement, but as a form of anxiety.
How to remember the exponentially increasing family groups, who so frequently shift location, their members marrying, remarrying, adopting children, disappearing, thriving and then, suddenly, diminishing? This isn’t merely a matter of keeping names straight: the generations of the Sel and the Duquet families are Brokeback Mountain author Proulx’s tools for laying bare how dynasties are established, why some flourish and some wither, and their dynamic relationship with their environment and its other inhabitants.
Ultimately, though, it’s the foundations that matter most. Proulx’s story begins with the arrival in “New France” – the vast tract of north America and Canada colonised by the French between the 16th and 18th centuries – of two young men, René Sel and Charles Duquet. Indentured to a harsh if not entirely brutal taskmaster, Monsieur Trépagny, they are set to earn their freedom by clearing an area of forest for him (not least so that he can tempt a classy bride from his homeland to join him in the fanciful house he’s built). Trépagny also believes that colonisation will bring him not merely personal wealth, but a chance to revenge himself on Jesuits, parochialism and “cold-hearted old France with its frozen ideas”.
René and Charles, awestruck by the imposing, often impenetrable and seemingly limitless extent of the forest, react to it in strikingly different ways. René cleaves to his inner woodsman, shaping himself to the land, puzzled by the drive to cut farther into the forest than necessary. Eventually, he marries Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman skilled in the therapeutic use of plants, enfolding her existing children with the couple’s own, and setting in train one of the novel’s key strands: the constant tension that their descendants feel as they negotiate their dual heritage.
Charles, however, is attached to the land for very different reasons – straight off the bat, he sees the potential to make his fortune, and he moves swiftly through commodities, business partners and trading nations until his foothold is secure, marrying for advantage and adopting extra sons just in case. In one of the funniest of the comic interludes that stud Barkskins, he is pictured collecting an absurdly grand wig, which is stolen a short time later by a thief who may well be in the wig maker’s employ. Retrieved in somewhat shabbier condition, the wig eventually comes to rest in a box in the attic, where it is discovered by two small boys. Spooked by what they believe to be a monstrous creature, they fling it from the window, whereupon flocks of birds descend to claim it for nesting material.
There are a good few of these sorts of episode – another involves a rather priggish middle-aged man, a late marriage, and a wife with extremely healthy appetites – but Barkskins’ register is more usually found somewhere between the serious and the sombre, and consistently concerned to impart information. It would be unfair to accuse the novel of being a victim of its research because Proulx engages with what she knows on more visceral terms than a writer who has simply alighted on an interesting subject. The pacing of her narrative, with each generation reflecting the further depredations of man against nature, its impact on the indigenous population and the twists and turns of colonial power, delivers a slowly gathering power, accented with the dread of irrevocable change.
When the Sels and the Duquets – or, as they become, the Dukes – develop a little more, it is easier to pay attention. Some of them stand out – as, of course, people do in a real family. Kuntaw Sel, his wife, Beatrix, and their children, embody much of the psychological pain of those who struggle to reconcile their Native American and French blood, especially when family ruptures occur. Here is Kuntaw, reunited with his troubled and self-hating son, Tonny: “It is not winter, but I will tell you the old stories of our people and the great ones in our lineage.” But Tonny is unmoved, finally responding: “Kuntaw. I do not belong here. I do not belong in Mi’kma’ki – Nova Scotia, they say it now. I am apart from every person, English, Mi’kmaq, French, American. I have no place … No place good for me. I go away. Maybe somebody kill me soon. Then I be done.” Before too long, he is granted his wish to die, “and, like countless other fathers, slipped into the past”.
That slippage of present into past is fiendishly hard to pull off, requiring an incredibly delicately calibrated manipulation of the reader’s empathy. Of recent novels in this vein, the most successful is Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy, which narrated the background to the 19th-century opium wars with extraordinary brio, moving from wrenchingly painful to hilariously antic with apparent ease, and creating some memorable characters in the process. Barkskins, for all its ambition and integrity, doesn’t quite pull off the same feat: it wants a little more light, a little more space to rest during the relentless march of history.