Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

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