“But there is no better subject than trees,” put in Harkiss. “For this timber family it is the bread and butter subject.”
Forgive me if I disagree with the first half of the above statement; I can think of a dozen better subjects without much effort. However, if you’d told me three weeks ago, when the Baileys Prize longlist was announced, that I’d thoroughly enjoy a 750 page novel about trees, I’d have laughed. But here we are.
Barkskins begins in 1693 with the arrival of René Sel and Charles Duquet in New France. Illiterate Sel has been employed by Monseiur Claude Trépagny to clear an area of forest. He’ll work for Trépagny for three years, allowing his master products from the land he clears, after which René will be entitled to his own patch of land in this newly conquered country. Duquet, ‘a scrawny engagé from the ship, weakling from the Paris slums who during the voyage often folded up in a corner like a broken stick’ is along for the same reason but has his eye on the fur trade as he believes that’s where the money is.
René begins to learn the land through Mari, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nations people, who Trépagny lives with. When Trépagny’s treachery is revealed, René and Mari are forced to marry. They then raise a family whose story form one thread of the book.
Duquet’s descendants form the other. Early in the book, Duquet goes missing, “eaten by the loup-garou” – forest spirits that had followed them from France – according to Trépagny. At the start of the second section of the novel, he’s discovered alive, although not at all well, by Odawa traders:
The mud had dried and to get at the man underneath they had to crack and break it away. They carried him to the river and soaked him in the waters until he emerged from his clay armour. They doubted he would live, but the Indian woman with them took his case in hand. In treating him she smelled the foul infection in his mouth. In her medicine bag she had a small wooden stick with a leather loop at the end. With this she removed his rotting teeth, gave him an infection fighting mouthwash and an opiate.
“Not die,” she said.
The voyageurs put him in their worn canoe and set out for a distant Ojibwa village to the northwest.
Duquet learns to read the water, learns the intricacies of the fur trade and learns to use a French tomahawk, giving himself an advantage over his musket using competitors.
While the book is about colonisation – the behaviour of white Europeans and the effects on the First Nations peoples – not only in what we now know as Canada but also in North America, Australia and New Zealand, it is also about white European’s attitudes to the forest.
At the start of the novel, the forest René and Duquet find themselves in is vast:
“How big is this forest?” asked Duquet in his whinging treble voice. He was scarcely larger than a child.
“It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.”
While Duquet tries to settle on a sure-fire way to make his fortune, he contemplates the forest:
The forest was unimaginably vast and it replaced itself. It could supply timber and wood for ships, houses, warmth. The profits will come forever.
Duquet kidnaps a priest who teaches him to read and write, then following a trip to China, in which he believes the following, he sets up his own timber business:
Duquet thought it likely that the forests of China and France and Italy had been puny in their beginnings, he believed that the uniquely deep forests of the New World would endure. That was why men came to the unspoiled continent – for the mind-numbing abundance of virgin resources.
Despite clear signs to the contrary, this belief persists for many years.
It’s not only the forest which appears vast; covering 320 years, so does the scope of the book. Inevitably this comes with its own issues: there are too many characters, some die before the reader’s barely got to know them, at certain points there are just too many descendants for the reader to keep track of who’s who; sometimes events are skimmed over too quickly, at other points the detail of trees and business means the plot sags. However, not only is the work an admirable achievement, if you’re prepared to invest some time on it, it pays off.
As a whole, Barkskins is a fascinating story about two families which tells a significant portion of the history of the Western world and the damage that white Europeans inflicted across it. It’s a worthy addition to the Baileys Prize longlist and I wouldn’t bet against seeing it on the shortlist either.
Thanks to 4th Estate for the review copy.