I was really excited about this book because I loved “Brokeback Mountain” (movie and story), I’d heard Annie Proulx is an amazing writer, and I enjoy immersing myself in a sweeping historical epic. Unfortunately, Barkskins just wasn’t for me, and I ended up deciding not to finish a bit over a quarter through.
At over 700 pages, Barkskins certainly has the potential to be a book to lose yourself in. It begins with the story of two penniless Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who move to Canada to make their fortunes. They start off as woodcutters, making money for a seigneur for some time before being given land of their own. Sel accepts this role and has a difficult life as a woodcutter. He is also made to marry his boss’s lover, an older Mi’kmaw woman, who was probably my favourite character because she was always so practical no matter the situation. Duquet escapes the seigneur and becomes a business person, trading fur then lumber. The story continues on to their descendants, and the struggles they faced, and all their fortunes are somehow tied back to lumber. I figure if I keep reading, the Sel family’s indigenous heritage will play a big role, as will an environmental message around preserving our forests.
There are interesting threads throughout the story, and some interesting characters, but either they are simply mentioned then discarded or they are so buried from so many other threads and characters that it’s hard to keep track. For example, I was just becoming interested in a character’s life, when their life was abruptly summarized and ended in the space of a page, and I had to find another character to become invested in. I realize that is part and parcel of a multi-generational epic, but I ended up not being all that interested in how the stories turn out.
That being said, I can imagine this story completely enthralling other readers, who may perhaps be more interested in the topics it explores than I am. There’s also the possibility that it becomes more interesting past the part I’ve read. So if you’re a big fan of Proulx’s work, or something in the overview above totally piqued your interest, by all means, give this a shot. It’s a well-written book, and the very attention to detail that made this a struggle for me may very well be what makes another reader lose themselves in the text. It’s just time I move on.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.