Tuesday 27 September 2016

An eco epic from a masterly storyteller

Fiction: Barkskins, Annie Proulx, Fourth Estate, hdbk, 712 pages, €24.99

John boland

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Disappointing: 80-year-old Annie Proulx's epic offers the reader a dismayingly trite conclusion.
Disappointing: 80-year-old Annie Proulx's epic offers the reader a dismayingly trite conclusion.
Barkskins

Annie Proulx's first novel in 14 years is an ambitious 712-page blockbuster that really should come with a genealogy chart

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Readers who have trouble  keeping up with the characters in some of the great  19th-century Russian novels may well throw up their hands in despair on encountering Annie Proulx's new book.

At the outset of this 712-page blockbuster, the year is 1693 and we're introduced to two French men, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, newly arrived in the vast forests of eastern Canada and indentured as labourers to lordly French boss Monsieur Trepagny. But after 50 pages, Trepagny is murdered, Rene meets his death three pages later and not too long afterwards Charles is also killed.

Proulx, though, has hardly begun her saga and over the rest of this sprawling novel, which spans more than four centuries, she ushers in such a bewildering array of people - descendants of Rene and Charles and of Rene's native American wife Mari - that an accompanying genealogy chart wouldn't have gone amiss.

This is certainly the most ambitious book undertaken by the now 80-year-old Proulx, who achieved international literary renown with her 1993 novel The Shipping News, and became even more famous through Ang Lee's movie version of her 1997 novella Brokeback Mountain, which concerned the gay relationship of two cowboys in modern-day Wyoming.

The subject matter of Barkskins, her first novel in 14 years, is a good deal less sexy, unless you're thrilled by the notion of forest clearances in an America that was ripe for plundering by French and English colonists.

But Proulx is a masterly storyteller and it's a tribute to her skill, empathy and psychological acuity that she keeps you interested in the lives and fates of most of her characters.

Charles Duquet, who from the outset "wanted great and permanent wealth", is convincingly brutal in his pursuit of riches, though he's not without a degree of humanity, and you feel for him when he meets a savage end at the hands of a man whose enmity he had incurred years earlier.

His business, now changed by name to the more Anglicised, and therefore more acceptable, Duke & Sons, is taken over by his heirs and we follow both their fortunes and their setbacks throughout some of the book's 10 sections - 10 novellas, really, though all interlocked in the novel's historically continuing narrative.

I confess to skimming through some of the extended discussions about the validity of wholescale tree-felling, the intricacies of the burgeoning timber industry and the beliefs and rituals of the despised and increasingly marginalised native Americans, and indeed some of the characters simply aren't very interesting, either as people or as participants in the frequently tortuous storyline.

But Proulx deftly switches the locale every so often, with vividly realised expeditions to China and New Zealand and visits to Amsterdam and other European cities. And just when your absorption occasionally starts to flag, Proulx introduces yet another character and relationship to rivet the attention. The most vivid of these occurs in the book's second half and include the 19th-century marriage of Charles's descendant, James, to the fiery Posey Brandon, whose leeringly incestuous father tells his son-in-law: "I taught her everything she knows."

A daughter, Lavinia, is the child of this marriage and she in turn fully engages the reader as she demands an active role in the running of the company.

Convinced that "the only true safety was money", she nonetheless finds fulfilment in her relationship with Dieter, who had been one of her late father's business partners.

Finally, the book reaches the 20th Century and yet more generations of the descendants of Rene, Charles and Mari, but by this stage, it has all become somewhat cursory, with brief, indeed almost offhand, treatment of the impact of World War One, the Wall Street crash and other momentous global events. It's as if Proulx by this stage has expended most of her imaginative energy and is impatient to wrap up her vast narrative.

At the very end, however, she can't resist doing what she had been careful to avoid before - giving the reader an ecological lecture. It's not phrased as such, but there's no escaping its intent as Mari and Rene's 2013 descendant, Sapatisia Sel, fearfully contemplates "the coming disappearance of a world believed immutable".

For years, we are told, she had heard "that the earth and its life-forms were sensitive to slight temperature changes, that species prospered and disappeared as weather and climate varied", but she had dismissed these alarms as "environmental determinism". Indeed, "all her life she had assumed polar ice was a permanent feature of earth".

Now, though, she realises that such is not the case and that it's too late to redress what her ancestors had started with their destruction of forests for commercial greed and gain.

Al Gore would approve the spelling-out of such inconvenient truths and so also would most readers of a newspaper opinion piece on the subject of global warming, but it makes for a dismayingly trite conclusion to a novel that has spent 700 pages seeking to engross us in the lives of people whose actions eventually helped lead us to environmental catastrophe.

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