Review: Barkskins by Annie Proulx

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

My relationship with Annie Proulx’s writing has become the very definition of love/loathe. I first encountered and fell in love with her work Postcards at university with Postcards. I read Brokeback Mountain prior to seeing the film and fell for its quiet melancholy. Then I read The Shipping News and it was if I was reading through an impenetrable fog. It was a battle between author and reader which I felt I couldn’t win. I’ve had the same problem with Accordion Crimes. Which leads me to Barkskins.

At a whopping 700 pages, it’s the longest book on the longlist and the one I approached with the most trepidation. If it was 700 pages of The Shipping News Fog, how on earth was I going to review it? What if Postcards and Brokeback were flukes and Proulx and I simply were never meant to get along? I had to just bite the bullet and see on which side the book fell.

Fortunately, I loved it. It’s an astonishing piece of work, one which cuts to the heart of many issues we face today by exploring the foundations they have in the past. 

Barkskins tells the tale of two dynasties, beginning with the arrival of René Sel and Charles Duquet in seventeenth-century New France, bound to a local lord and forced into becoming barkskins or wood-cutters. Operating as a series of vignettes, Proulx charts the fortunes of both families; one, the Sels, occupying an awkward in-between space, not quite belonging to the Mi’kmaq or migrant white cultures. The other, Duquet’s clan, rise to establish their logging firm as a force within the industry for generations to come.

What results is an incredibly ambitious tale of the rise of America and Canada, the capitalist system, and the damage wrought by people who assumed resources would be infinite. The Duquets, later the more Anglicised Dukes, ride that capitalist wave and benefit from the exploitation wrought on families like the Sel’s. Proulx treats her characters with the same kind of reverence, but her criticism of the system in which they operate seethes through the pages at all times.

Proulx also examines the transience of life through the progression of her characters’ families. Death is a constant, often looming out of nowhere to cut down a character we had been spending time with in order to move our attention to the next. Each character has their own little narrative within their time period, but soon give way to the themes of inheritance and lineage than runs through the novel. 

The lack of foresight that many characters suffer from has ramifications not only for their descendents, but everyone else’s too. There’s a heartbreaking coda that sums up much of this. Our resources are not infinite, however much we like to believe they are. 

I still really don’t like The Shipping News though.