What is it that makes Annie Proulx’s voice so compelling, so completely her own? She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.
Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins, Proulx’s latest and – at over 700 pages – longest novel. This is a vast story of the wanton destruction of ancient forests and native peoples by greedy and myopic invading whites. Unfortunately, lacking Proulx’s signature observational detachment, it becomes, like the sentence above, heavy-handed and obvious – two descriptions I could never have imagined attaching to her work.
The novel spans 1693 to 2013, and follows the families of two Frenchmen, impressed for three years as woodsmen to a seigneur in exchange for land in New France. One, Rene Sel, marries a Mi’kmaw woman, starting a long line of mixed-blood descendants who struggle for the next three centuries against the ugly discrimination and depredations of white Europeans and Americans. The other, Charles Duquet, has far bigger plans: he escapes servitude and ends up building a huge timber enterprise, thereby becoming one of those responsible for the depredations.
The parade of characters offers few places to hang our emotional interest, and the forest as the one consistent character does not suffice. The device worked in Accordion Crimes, with the accordion as the unifying character, because a musical instrument, an extension of its owner, is satisfyingly intimate.
The longest stretch of the old Proulx voice finally shows up in Chapter 40, “choppers and rivermen,” featuring Jinot Sel, one of the book’s most engaging characters. I practically laughed in relief when I got to this chapter. Unfortunately, it is short-lived, and, as the narrator describes once, “The lecture continued.” Indeed.