The Big Issue : Edition 515
THE BIG ISSUE 1 – 14 JULY 2016 37 BAR KSKI NS ANNIE PROULX AFTER A 10-YEAR absence, Annie Proulx has re-emerged with this epic 700-page novel about the settlement of North America. Focusing on the destructive evolution of the timber trade, the book follows the interlocking bloodlines of René Sel and Charles Duquet, who arrive penniless, as bonded labourers to a French settler. Duquet is untiringly rapacious, intelligent and Machiavellian. Before his end, he changes his name to Duke and starts a massive timber empire. Sel is decent and a real woodsman, who marries an indigenous Mi’kmaw woman before he meets his death. Duquet’s descendants spend the next 500 pages trying to chop down every tree in North America, while Sel’s family struggles endlessly to survive in the white man’s world, trying to live a life that preserves their lost one. However different the fates of the two clans, their lives crisscross in surprising ways right to the end. The narrative grinds onward, often obstructed by massive information dumps – usually about the less than scintillating minutiae of the timber trade. There’s an art to writing history (that’s why we have historians), but Proulx hasn’t acquired it. The Indian characters are sympathetic and rounded – genuinely trying to make a life at all times, never entirely surrendering to despair. But there’s an embarrassment of unfortunate ends that are distractingly cartoonish: fire, axe, cholera, drowning, smallpox, train crash, cancer, eaten by Maoris. Life really is nasty, brutish and short. The book is an engorged version of Proulx’s stock in trade: the themed short story. On that basis many of the sections work beautifully – one sequence where logs are being floated down river, causing a massive jam, is wonderful storytelling. When she concentrates and lets you see the wood for the trees, she is as spellbinding as ever. There are some gorgeous sequences in New Zealand, a place Proulx clearly loves, and many appealing, if baroque, interludes – most notably the marriage of a Duke descendant to an incestuous nymphomaniac that feels straight out of American Horror Story. The book hurtles downhill at the end – whizzing through history like a Hollywood montage – to a self- consciously modern novelistic coda. Maybe the book would’ve worked just as well if it had ended after the first characters died, but it does linger in the mind. Its strength is its geological heft – the sheer scale of colonial greed and desperation, ignorance and stupidity. Maybe this is why it had to be so big. by Peter Kenneally » Barkskins is out now. SELECT Covering the standouts in film, music, books and home entertainment SHE DOES GO ON A BIT: ANNIE PROULX.