Winton Pawprints 

Winton (c.1995-2012) was our beloved shop cat and still has the last word every month in her regular column.

Barkskins

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Annie Proulx’s new novel  is of a daunting thickness (as are so many books in these days of rush to publish and screw the editor) but I would happily have had it continue for another 700 pages. It’s a ‘climate change’ novel that covers the rape of the world’s once seemingly endless forests by colonising humans between 1693 to 2013, so if Proulx had the stamina there could easily have been (or be) another fat book dealing with the nightmare future generations face because of the human plague of consumption that has decimated the green world. It’s been ages since I read something that once engaged with is on your mind wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. You whip through the pages fast to get to what happens next, all the while trying to hold yourself back because the last page is approaching too quickly. And like other big books that have this affect—think Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books—you also want to put the brakes on to give the depth of the author’s research a respectful amount of time to sink in.
Barkskins opens with René Sel and Charles Duquet arriving in Wobik, New France. They have crossed the ocean, escaping a life of poverty in France to serve as engagés to the slightly villainous Monsieur Trépagny, an aspiring seigneur intent on taming the ‘forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.’ No one? In the terra nulleus convictions of the colonist les sauvages who see the forest as ‘a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material ... within which one lived with harmony and gratitude’ don’t exist as either owner or tiller of these opportunities for great wealth and advancement to the white man brave enough to take them. ‘Whitemen looked at trees and saw they were good only to build flat-sided cage-houses or ships ... The forest was there, enormous and limitless. The task of men was to subdue its exuberance, to tame the land it grew on—useless land until cleared and planted with wheat and potatoes’. Duquet escapes M. Trépagny at the first opportunity. He becomes a voyageur dealing in furs. He uses the fortune he makes to found a lumber concern that criss-crosses the globe in search of forests to fell, eventually lopping down even the ancient kauri in New Zealand. The less ambitious Sel serves his time, earns his parcel of land, marries a Mi’kmaq woman, and dies suddenly and unceremoniously with an axe in his skull. There’s a lot of sudden death in the book as time moves in leaps and bounds and branches of both the Sel and Duquet family trees flourish or wither. Sel’s family tree in step with the fate of the indigenous population and the desecration of the forest, Duquet’s progeny reaping the profits of this desecration (there’s even a wink to Scarlet O’Hara and her post war lumber mill in one of Duquet’s more enterprising great grandchildren).
There’s no stopping human progress and the book gets bleaker and bleaker. By the time you get to 2013 it’s hard not to think that we are actually already living in the dystopian future so many sci fi novels have predicted. The book ends in the company of those who labour to fix what’s been broken, but as one of these ecowarriors ponders: ‘What if it was already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world?’ Bleak, yes, but an incredibly important and eminently readable book. Winton

 
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