Book Review: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Colonisation – this is why it came about. The Bible says, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'(Genesis 1: 26-28)”

cv_barkskinsBarkskins is a superb novel about forests, those who cut them, those who protect them, and many worlds that have long gone. It takes you hurtling through decades in the lives of the descendents of two men: Rene Sel, and Charles Duquet. Both men come from a labourer’s life in France, brought over by Monsieur Trepagny to clear his land in ‘New France’ – in a region which at that time was part of the Mi’kma’ki lands, though these were contested by the Iroquois. Charles disappears into the woods as soon as he can, while Rene resigns himself to a life as a forester, and is forced to marry a Mi’kmaq woman, Mari. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” This is the beginning of a long line of Sels.

We pick up with Charles at the start of the next section. After being healed of his many infections by some Ojibwa Indians, he decides to go into the fur trade. Wealth from fur trading, particularly in China, leads to his purchase of great forests, and as the chapters on his life end, we see Charles Duquet reform into Charles Duke, and head South into New England to begin a new life with adoptive sons alongside (and a wife safely back in the Netherlands).

As son begets son, begets daughter, I fell in love with many characters, only to have them cruelly wiped out by a forest fire, house fire or sometimes, simply, an infection. Proulx has a gift for giving the perfect deaths to the most awful characters. One particularly petty character was wiped out by a flash frost while on a slow boat on his way back to his daughter. Such a good death. The most surprising death goes to a wife of one of Duquet’s adoptive sons. I won’t say much more than that, but it led to one of the few laugh-aloud moments in the book.

And everything comes back to the forests, the inestimable, ever-lasting forests. Proulx expertly tells these stories of great loss with no emotion, presenting the Native Indian side of the story alongside the ravenous, exploitative colonial side. You mourn the loss of the Native Indian medicinal plants and their native knowledge of how to live off the land; and later, the disgusting way in which they were treated. You mourn as these colonials blindly remove all the life around them, unknowingly destroying the land they have stolen; or taken in exchange for a few kettles, for a few axes.

Indians are seen as wastrels, because of their habit of living in harmony with nature, rather than bending nature to do their bidding. They are slow to take to growing food in gardens, and to farming – and as they are outnumbered due to disease, and have to live by the white men’s rules, and buy their food, they are forced to work for the white men. Throughout the book, we follow many of Sel’s forest-cutting descendents; but always, this work is seen as compromise, and there are sporadic returns to the old hunting grounds, later to the Reservation, to see the changes wreaked. “…they must live in two worlds, they went because inside they carried their old places hidden under the centuries, hidden as beatles under fallen leaves, as pebbles in a closed hand, hidden as memories.”

Every character we encounter tells a piece of the overall arc of story. The most interesting character in feminist terms was Lavinia, as she made great strides forward in being in charge of her destiny, and that of her family. As a woman in business in the 1880’s, she was an enjoyable anomaly. Later, Lavinia’s husband Dieter is the first of several conservationists we encounter in the book: it is through his eyes we begin to understand the changes wrought on the land they have taken.

Barkskins is, without doubt, a master work. I am grateful that Proulx’s publishers trusted her genius wholeheartedly enough to give her the time and space to write this saga. There are so many characters there that we could learn more about, and I’d love to see a follow on story, particularly one involving the formidable Sepatisia.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Barkskins
by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN  9780008191764

 

 

Book Review: Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All, by Jonas Jonasson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hitman_anders_and_the_meaning_of_it_allJonas Jonasson’s previous books include The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden.

Per Persson works at the Sea Point Hotel as the receptionist and has a room behind the counter. Hitman Anders is a long-time resident of the hotel – his real name is Johan Andersson. Hitman Anders came by his name after putting an axe into the head of his amphetamine dealer. Everybody is scared of him and because of this he has never paid a cent in rent.

Johanna Kjellander, a former priest, is sleeping rough since being chucked out of her parish after announcing to her congregation she didn’t believe in God, much less Jesus.

Per Persson is handed an envelope at reception containing five thousand kroner for half a job done by Hitman Andersson. Hitman only broke one arm instead of two. His drinking is a bit of a problem but he doesn’t want to end up in prison again. He lives by his reputation and everybody being scared of him.

A scheme is hatched by Per Persson and Johanna to hire Hitman out for jobs with each job having a set price. That goes awry when Hitman finds God and doesn’t want to kill any more. They then hatch another scheme where they accept jobs on his behalf with payment made before the job is done.

I found this a very funny book with a totally improbable plot and lots of bible misquotes which really was the charm of the whole book. A great read.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All
by Jonas Jonasson
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008155575

Book review: Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison

This book is in bookstores now.

I just Googled images of Fabergé eggs, perhaps the most ostentatious symbol of the last thirty years of the Romanov dynasty of Russia. Exquisitely crafted, encrusted with precious stones, and all with a hidden surprise, these beautiful pieces have outlived and outshone a most awful time in Russian history.

In this novel, there is a Fabergé egg which has a miniature version of the royal residence Tsarskoe Selo, some 24 kms south of St Petersburg. First constructed in the early 18th century by Peter the Great, it was also the last home of the Romanov family before they were sent to Siberia for their final days. For Marsha, the narrator of this story, the beautiful egg, which she first sees as a young child, is her introduction to the Romanov family and comes to symbolise the tiny, unrealistic and controlled world they live in.

Marsha is 18 years old. She is also the daughter of Grigori Rasputin, that peculiar man who had such a hold over the Tsarina Alexandra, and apparently not just for his medical skills in his treatment of her hemophiliac son, Alexi or Alyosha as he is in this book. Who knows. There have been pages and pages written about this time in Russian history, films made, songs sung. This book is not about Rasputin, but it does open with the discovery of his murdered body in the Neva River.

With Rasputin now gone, the Tsarina looks to Marsha, an intelligent, quietly observant girl with perhaps some of the mystique of her father which is so appealing to the Tsarina, to take over the care of her 13 year old son. Somewhat shocked and alarmed by this request, Marsha doesn’t feel she can refuse. So she moves into the palace a bare two months before the Bolsheviks took over. From thereon in, she too is a prisoner in the palace.

She becomes a close friend of the young Alyosha, telling stories of her family, in particular her father, and recreates the lives of both their parents into some sort of fairytale wonderland/dream sequence which of course comes crashing down. Throughout the stories, which quickly blend with the reality of their imprisonment, there is a strong thread of erotica and awakening sexuality between these two. It is all very tastefully and beautifully done. At all times Alyosha knows he and his family will not survive – he is a well educated young lad with a fascination for the French Revolution and is constantly comparing his family’s fate to that of the Louis XVI and his entourage.

Marhsa, naturally, survives the carnage and here the book takes a slightly different turn. The magical realism quickly fades away as the reality of life outside the luxury of the palace hits home. After a marriage of convenience that takes her to Paris, she rather weirdly ends up becoming an animal handler in the circus – first as a horse riding acrobat, and latterly as a handler of lions, tigers and bears until the day she is almost killed by a bear. And even more weirdly, this is actually true – Marsha was a real person, daughter of Rasputin and animal whisperer extraordinaire – her father’s daughter perhaps.

Aside from the historical aspects and the strong narrative, there are faults with this book. Firstly it took an absolute age to get underway. For the first 60 odd pages barely anything happens, things just trudge along, not helped by the heavy, overly long and complicated sentences. Once the actual narrative gets underway things improve, but it is quite a way into the book before the author seems to find her stride and she is away. Secondly I did find the transition from being companion to Alyosha to being her own woman a bit awkward. After all is this a book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty or is it a book about Rasputin’s daughter?

I think I would have preferred it to be about Marsha herself. She sounds to have all the characteristics of a true survivor and I would have liked to have had more than the last quarter of the book solely about her.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Enchantments
by Kathryn Harrison
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780007456062