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Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Book Review

April 15, 2016


It is the late seventeenth century and French paupers René Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in New France (an area at that time stretched from modern day Canada to Louisiana). They are known as ‘Barkskins’ or wood-cutters indentured to a seigneur until they have earned their right to a plot of land through relentless, hard work. René Sel serves out his time, but Charles Duquet runs away to seek his fortune in his own brutal way. The story then follows the fate of the two sets of descendants over the next three hundred years. One family originates from René Sel and a Mi’kmaw woman, while the others marry into European families and benefit from Duquet’s business acumen, building an empire on the forests they are ravaging for their timber.

This is certainly an epic, both in terms of history and geography. But this is also a novel written on the intimate scale, and with such a depth of description as to have you swatting off the swarms of mosquitoes and reaching for the nearest medicine cabinet to sooth the hideous lumps wracking your body with the furious itching of insect bites.

You are in no doubt that this book has been meticulously researched. However the level of detail only makes you greedy for more and wanting to know what might lie out of sight of the character’s viewpoint. The lyrical rendering of the myriad of minutiae and their fluid delivery immerses you in the worlds of the Sels and the Duquets (or Dukes as they become, due the canny patriarch Charles realising the benefits of an English name). You feel their pain and indignation, as well as their moments of joy. In fact they are so brilliantly conceived you almost feel tempted to Google the families to see what history has to say about them.

The two stories run in parallel, occasionally crisscrossing and switching from one to the other as some notable event befalls first one, then the other. One family, the Sels, attempt to continue their traditions, but gradually become drawn into the ruthless world of the timber trade as employees on the lowest rung of the ladder. Their fate reflects that of the diminishing great forests of Northern America, once thought to be the source of an endless supply of wood. The Duquets or Dukes reflect the ups and downs of business empires the world over as they take what they can get, and use people and their lands heartlessly to increase their wealth, while they range between America, Europe, China and New Zealand.

Annie Proulx is known as a literary author, but she has the unique quality of writing exquisite literature that is both accessible and a riveting read. I am happy to say she has, once again, achieved this with Barkskins, a book that once read can be enjoyed all over again because there are just so many wonderful human stories within it.

Barkskins was courtesy of Fourth Estate via NetGalley

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