Annie Proulx's sprawling novel about the deforestation of the American continent is eco-fiction at its most grandiose, a dynastic story that begins with a bunch of French loggers felling forests in 17th-century Canada and ends with their remote descendants in 2013, dismissed as "tree-hugging eco-nuts," desolately wondering how to start replanting.
In between are three centuries and 700 pages of extraordinarily variable writing. The best of it flaunts the ear for dialogue and eye for nature for which Proulx's earlier fiction has been celebrated (The Shipping News, That Old Ace in the Hole, Brokeback Mountain); the worst of it is a pitiless slog through groves of polemic and thickets of dense research.
The book opens in 1693, as Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two runaways seeking their fortunes in the New World, sign on with a landowner called Trepigny in the part of North America then known as Nouvelle France.
Sel can wield an axe, Duquet can't, but both are given the task of clearing woodland around their landlord's secret folly, a perfect replica of a French mansion built in to the wilderness of the colonies. Both men think they will get a parcel of land in exchange for three years' service, but instead stolid Sel is married off to the Mi'kmaq housekeeper while sneaky Duquet runs away.
The rest of the novel follows the two men's bloodlines down three centuries of tree-felling and gory death. Sel spends his life hacking phlegmatically away at the forest, and his children, half-native and half-invader, find their various troubled ways as woodsmen and lumberjacks, while twilight falls on the "tattered Mi'kmaq people, whose customs had fallen off like flakes of dead skin".
Duquet, meanwhile, "choking with energy and ambition", reinvents himself as patriarch of the Duke timber family; his descendants spit and fight over the money while continuing his rapacious work.
Proulx contrasts the views of the Sels, forced to make a living amid the dismantling of their society and the landscape around them, with those of the Duquets, who see trees - and people - as inexhaustible resources to exploit.
"These forests could not disappear," muses Duquet. "In New France they were vast and eternal." A century later, and a Duke descendant suggests "that we take what we can get as soon as we can".
Another century, another Duke: "The rainforest is so large and rich it defeats all who try to conquer it." This ironic motto is played fortissimo, and it is left to the Sels to gloss the mirroring theme: "The forest was a grand resource and it was both the enemy and wealth. Achille felt it was the same with the Mi'kmaq; the white settlers used them and took them down."
That air of embattled authorial forthrightness is everywhere in this novel, which often struggles to reconcile its interest in individual lives with polemical concerns and a wide-angle perspective on history. As Dukes and Sels zip across the globe (China, Canada, Holland, New Zealand, Brazil), Proulx begins to settle for telling the reader the things that her scope prevents her from showing.
Motivation and event are sketched in on the fly: "He escaped the avenging rangers, but fell the next week to an unknown assassin"; "Sedley promised, but already harboured a hatred against the murdering infant".
Historical background is forced rudely into paragraphs of period dialogue. Part of the project is clearly to contrast the brevity of individual lives with the slowly-evolving longue duree, but as a consequence the characters blur into indistinctness as the book sweeps forward.
This feels like a novel not just about a long period but written over a long period as well, with corresponding fluctuations in energy.
Some passages are dragged out in bland synopsis, while others prompt crackling descriptions and conceits.
We encounter a merchant who sees his shipmates frozen in a blast of cold air; a logger who thinks back fondly on childhood incest with his brother; and a ferocious parson's wife who beats her husband for leaving her unsatisfied in bed.
Proulx has designed her novel to flourish like the wild woods at its heart. Some judicious wielding of the axe, however, might have left its enchantments room to grow.
Fiction: The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy
Felicity Hayes-McCoy lives on the beautiful Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry and she sets her new novel The Library at the Edge of The World in one such rural coastal community, which comes together to protect one of its hitherto undervalued and often overlooked assets: its mobile library.
Hanna Casey, the local librarian on the fictional Finfarran Peninsula, finds herself divorced and back at home in her mother's house after living the high life in London. With her daughter away travelling the world and relations between Hanna and her mother fraught, Hanna would love to find her own place and forge an independent future for herself. But unforeseen obstacles arise and Hanna must find a way home. At first wary of the neighbours she left so long ago she rubs people up the wrong way, but when the chips are down and her library - their library - is under threat, they unite to save what they come to realise is an invaluable asset at the heart of their community.
With recognisable characters such as Fury (and his dog the Divil), and Sister Michael, the story draws us in, and the fluid accessible writing makes it an easy, pleasant summer read for fans of Maeve Binchy. The local detail, the setting and the upbeat pace will have you rooting for Hanna and her new-found friends. If you like reading a feel-good novel set in Ireland, then take a journey to the edge of the world.
Sunday Indo Living