In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.
Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid – in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope – that we follow them with fierce attention.
Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.
Review by Caroline Baum
At its most powerful fiction can take you into an unfamiliar world, and make you care about the people who live in it. As Proulx did so memorably in The Shipping News . Her latest work is monumental, as imposing and daunting as the giant redwoods of California. I mention those towering trees because it is they, or rather forests, that are her subject here. And if that sounds unexciting, think again.
Think of a magnificent, majestic project that only Annie Proulx would have the dogged lunacy to attempt. The span of her ambition here is breathtaking: nothing short of global, Barkskins is like a great big giant of a tree, its branches spanning three centuries and several continents instead of focusing tightly on a small community as she did in The Shipping News.
Like any vigorous forest, her pages teem with life. Her characters are always visceral, plain of looks and of speech. Proulx fills in her vast canvas with the tiniest detail as she weaves a dramatic history of the great depletion of the world's oldest forests by loggers, beginning in the seventeenth century. While the men are doing the business of chopping things down, the women are the keepers of secret knowledge, of healing and recipes.
The people in these pages are tough, wily, violent, and greedy. Proulx knows them better than you know your family. She is also humorous in that uniquely deadpan droll way of hers - at one point when one of her early traders boasts of working hard, sleeping hard and eating moose nose, I could not help but think of Monty Python's The Lumberjack Song's 'I cut down trees, I eat my lunch,' and well, you can look up the rest if you don't know it.
This is a magnum opus in every sense, epic in size, scope and size of cast but richly rewarding for those with the commitment to devote to it. Time is a central character in the novel, and so it is fitting that Proulx should demand it of her readers with such a commanding grasp of how the past has produced the decimated present. An immersive experience like no other.
`An ambitious novel of extraordinary power that deserves to win the biggest literary prizes and confirms Proulx as a more gifted writer than many of those deemed "great American Novelists" ***** Sunday Express
`Magnificent ... might be her best book yet' Anthony Doerr
`Wonderful ... A huge and brilliant novel, which takes us back to the uncompromising splendour of the natural world, and affirms Proulx's reputation as one of the greatest and toughest prose stylists writing today' TLS
`Truly compelling ... I quickly devoured it ... Barkskins stays with you' Stylist
`An enthralling story ... Forest ecology, indigenous culture, sea voyages, Dutch culture, colonial and Maori culture, the logging industry: all these subjects and many more are revealed through the adventures of her characters' New Statesman
`Proulx's commanding epic about the annihilation of our forests is nothing less than a sylvan Moby-Dick ... Proulx's commanding, perspective-altering epic will be momentous' Booklist
`Many of the fine qualities we have come to look for and expect in Proulx's writing are in evidence in Barkskins. There is comedy, grotesquery and quirkiness mixed in with startling moments of sadness and suffering ... This is a big, ambitious novel that offers a new and cleverly indirect way of thinking about American history' Financial Times
`The pacing of her narrative, with each generation reflecting the further depredations of man against nature, its impact on the indigenous population and the twists and turns of colonial power, delivers a slowly gathering power, accented with the dread of irrevocable change' Guardian, Book of The Week
`Such is the magnetism of Proulx's narrative that there's no resisting her thundering cascade of stories' Washington Post
`Deeply rewarding' Good Housekeeping