August 2016

Noted

‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx

By Helen Elliott
Cover of Barkskins
Fourth Estate; $32.99

Annie Proulx is unsure if she invented the word “barkskins”, which describes the men who cut down trees for a living. Whether she did or not, she says it was the only title possible for her latest novel. This vast, generally magnificent, work follows the fate of the planet from 1693, when it is largely green and covered in wondrous, breathing forests, until 2013, when it is … well, what it is.

At the end of the 17th century, humans and animals are living harmoniously in these forests, but capitalism, industrialisation and globalisation are beginning to unfurl. Two French boys arrive to work in New France (Canada), believing that after three years’ labour clearing the forest for their rapacious master they will be granted some forest of their own. One of them dreams of a simple future. The other does not. He comes from the streets of Paris; he is thin and ill but has a fantastic ability to make money.

Proulx follows the chancy lives of these two boys and that of their descendants as they flourish and the trees do not. The boys are named, but those names are irrelevant because there is never any emotional investment in them or in any other character. The opening quote from the philosopher George Santayana telegraphs Proulx’s own attitude: “Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.” Proulx is focused on the long view, the fate of the planet rather than the individual. Death is the main character in Barkskins, the most frequent and consistent and certainly the most shocking.

Proulx has spent over a decade writing this, and it shows in the hoarded, curious details she empties onto the page: the smell of the 17th-century forest, the interior of a wigwam or a ship, how coffee was made, and what food was eaten and with what implements. All these tiny, gleaming things add up. She might be Knausgaard writing history – the marshalling of detail is mesmeric and requires measured reading to avoid suffocation. But her observations are matchless: a ship sails across a “quilted ocean”, a cloud is “a ribbon of spilled cream on blue satin”, a formal Chinese garden is called “The Garden of Delightful Confusion”.

This is no mere novel. Call it a voyage. You need time to stay with it, to immerse yourself in it, to map it, to sit back and examine the pain, joy, pleasure and disgust, and, finally, to try to stem the anxiety. Anxiety not for yourself, perhaps, but for the teeming world that once was, and for the diminishing future.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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