Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which chronicles the US lumber industry over several centuries, is a novel “deeply aware of contemporary environmental concerns”, said Ian McGuire in the Financial Times. Over its 700-plus pages, it follows two families, both descended from indentured servants: the Dukes, who achieve immense wealth through the lumber trade; and the Sels, who are beset by problems of “mixed identity” (the first settler marries an Indian) and end up as “poorly rewarded” lumberjacks. Together, the two families make for a particular American story of “dispossession, racial hybridity and roller-coaster capitalism”. Displaying many of the “fine qualities” that have marked Proulx’s previous writing, such as her 1993 bestseller The Shipping News, Barkskinsoffers a “cleverly indirect way of thinking about American history”.
While there are flashes of a “sublime novelist at work”, much about this novel seems in “profound error”, said Philip Hensher in The Spectator. Three hundred years is a “colossal period” for any narrative to cover, and Proulx rushes through hers with “disconcerting rapidity”. Only when she gives her characters “space to breathe” do they become compelling. Reading this didactic saga, you find yourself “engulfed by an avalanche of wood”, said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. Trees are everywhere; woody terminology (“knurls”, “boomage”) abounds; and even characters resemble trees (a father describes his daughter as a “chip off the Old Stump”, and another is a “plank washed up on shore”). As the narrative “lumbers on through the centuries”, it’s hard to muster much interest in the characters.