Thursday 22 December 2016


By Annie Proulx

At one time, forests, seemingly endless and eternal, covered much of North America.  These forests were occupied by aboriginal people who understood the symbiotic relationship between humans and the forest ecosystem.   As the Europeans arrived, wood became more than a source of shelter and heat: it became a commodity.  Annie Proulx’ Barkskins is the story of the rise of the lumber industry and the subsequent decline of the forest.

When Charles Duquet and Rene Sel arrive in the New World in 1693, they are indentured servants.  They are immediately confronted with “dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.”  They must work for the cruel Claude Trepagny for years before acquiring land to work as their own.

Rene Sel works diligently, chopping trees and clearing the forest, waiting for his promised land.  Eventually he marries Mari, a Micmac woman, producing several children.

Charles Duquet, however, will not be subject to Trepagny’s whims and disappears into the forest, eventually joining the fur trade.  Duquet shows himself to be a skilled businessman, driven by ambition.  Unlike those around him, he sees an opportunity in the infinite forest that surrounds him.

He starts his own logging business: Duquet and Sons.  Over the years it becomes Duke and Sons, taking the English name to reflect the changing times.  Duquet, like other Europeans, has no qualms about removing the forest; it is an endless and renewable resource.

Rene Sel’s descendants, part French and part Micmac, lose their Micmac heritage over time.  European ideology becomes the predominant way of thinking: land is there for the taking and humans must bend it to our will.  It is the white man’s duty to cut down the savage forests and subjugate its inhabitants.

Fast forward to today.  Sel and Duquet descendants, still working in the woods, become biologists and activists.  Even those in the lumber industry finally begin to understand that the vast ecosystems of old growth forests can never be replaced.

Of course, there is much more to this 700 page story.  At its heart, Barkskins is a family saga.  Generations of Sels and Duquets are born, grow, marry, have children (often with each other) and die.  It is also a history, not only of logging but ideology.  Proulx explores the idea of man versus nature, and asks whether the two are indeed in conflict.  Perhaps, as the first peoples of this continent believed, we are one.

Saturday 17 December 2016


by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, grabbed me from the first page. Some stories take a while to get into, but this one had me from the opening section of the novel, set at a family christening party. It flows — from character to character and room to room and even house to house — with such visual grace that it’s almost like a movie. Everything is vivid, from the sounds of the party to the scent of the drinks. Patchett is descriptive but not flowery, an author who always seems to know just what needs to be written.  

The novel focuses on two families, the Cousins and the Keatings, and their messy association. Stories about dysfunctional families can tend toward cliché; it’s become a rather well-worn device. This isn’t that, a woe-is-me tale of divorce and hostile step-children. The novel surprises at every turn and I rarely knew what would happen next due to its layered characterizations. 
I’ll give you the bare minimum: the two families become interwoven by events that are set in motion at an orange-and-gin saturated suburban party. Fix Keating- a police officer in Torrance, California — watches as Bert Cousins, a co-worker who is barely an acquaintance, turns up at his daughter Franny’s christening.  This will have a disastrous effect on Fix’s marriage- before the night is through, Bert will kiss Beverly Keating. Bert eventually leaves his own wife and children, and he and Beverly will take the Keating daughters and move to Virginia. Franny is as close as this novel gets to a main character, though the novel regularly follows Bert, Fix, Beverly and others.  

The novel shifts very successfully between past and present, covering five decades in the lives of these characters. It’s both funny and poignant, and as I began to reach the last pages of the book I already knew I would miss them. You won’t find a huge overarching plot, it’s just life — just the lives of a number of semi-regular people- and that Patchett can bring such energy and interest to it is a sort of magic. Highly recommended.