Barkskins – Annie Proulx

“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.

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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.

 

 

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

In the Media, June 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s impossible to begin with anything other than the Stanford rape case. The victim’s court statement was published on Buzzfeed and went viral. The piece, along with responses from Brock Turner’s father and friends, including a female friend who defended him, have prompted some impassioned and powerful pieces: Louise O’Neill wrote, ‘20 minutes is an awfully long time when you’re the one being raped‘ in the Irish Examiner; Estelle B. Freedman, ‘When Feminists Take On Judges Over Rape‘ in The New York Times; Sarah Lunnie, ‘Maybe the word “rapist” is a problem: The utility of nouns and verbs, or accepting who we are and what we do‘ on Salon; Adrienne LaFrance, ‘What Happens When People Stop Talking About the Stanford Rape Case?‘ on The Atlantic; Kim Saumell, ‘I was never raped but…‘ on Medium; Rebecca Makkai, ‘The Power and Limitations of Victim-Impact Statements‘ in The New Yorker; Roe McDermott, ‘He Said Nothing‘ on The Coven; Glosswitch, ‘Does the outrage over the Stanford rape case do anything to help victims?‘ in the New Statesman

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The other big news this fortnight was Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, taking The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. Justine Jordan wrote, ‘Sweary Lady’s riot of invention is a well-deserved winner of the Baileys prize‘ in The Guardian. While McInerney wrote about her working day for The Guardian and shared a secret in ‘Bad Behaviourism‘ on Scottish Book Trust

There’s a new series on Literary Hub about women writers in translation. Written by a group of translators, each fortnight they’re looking at a country and the women writers from there yet to be translated into English. So far they’ve covered Germany, China and Italy. I’ve added it to the regulars at the bottom of the page.

And finally, the excellent Jendella Benson has a new column on Media Diversified. This week’s is ‘How to Raise a Champion‘ and I’ve also added her to the list of regulars at the bottom of the page.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Dan Phillips

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: March 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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8th March 2016: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announces its 2016 longlist, comprised of 20 books that celebrate the best of fiction written by women

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced this fortnight. While former winner, Lionel Shriver declared ‘Women’s literary prizes are ‘problematic’‘.

And the Wellcome Book Prize announced their shortlist with four (out of six) female writers on it, as did the YA Book Prize with eight women writers on its ten book shortlist.

Elena Ferrante is hot news in the literary world once again after Corriere della Sera published an article in which Marco Santagata claimed to know her identity. Rachel Donadio wrote, ‘Who Is Elena Ferrante? An Educated Guess Causes a Stir‘ in The New York Times; Jonathan Sturgeon said, ‘We Already Know the Identity of Elena Ferrante‘ on Flavorwire; Lincoln Michel asked, ‘Why Do We Care Who the “Real” Elena Ferrante Is?‘ on Electric Literature; Stassa Edwards asked, ‘What’s Really Behind Our Obsession Over Unmasking Elena Ferrante?‘ on Jezebel; John Dugdale wrote, ‘Will Elena Ferrante outlast Louisa May Alcott’s secret alter ego?‘ in The Guardian, and Jessica Roy declared, ‘Leave Elena Ferrante Alone‘ in The Cut.

Anita Brookner died. Rebecca Hawkes wrote her obituary while Linda Grant wrote, ‘Why Anita Brookner’s funny, sharp novels got under your skin‘ both in The Telegraph.

The best of the rest:

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On or about books/writers/language:

Sara Novic

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

'A violation of innocence.' Hilary Mantel at St. Ann's Church, Manchester

It’s an unseasonably warm evening as I make my way across Manchester to listen to Hilary Mantel talk about and read from her latest short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The church is packed (as you might expect) and latecomers are sneaking in the door as Mantel arrives onstage to a lengthy round of applause.

The evening begins with Mantel reading from ‘Offences Against the Person’. She stands at a small lectern and takes the opportunity, both before and after reading her chosen extract, to tell us her thoughts on the short story form.

She says the joys of the short story are that you can inhabit a voice instantly and it’s like going to call on someone rather than move in with them, as she has done with Thomas Cromwell. She likes the way the short story can leave something to the reader’s imagination. With regards to this particular short story, she likes the narrator, Vicky, her capacity for mayhem and destruction, and she’d like to work with her again.

She goes on to say that short stories are ‘diverse in intention, mode and execution’. She likes that they can hint at other stories outside of the page but she doesn’t find it an easy form. Some short stories just don’t gel. Others, however, are done in the time it takes to write and then Mantel says she tinkers with maybe five per cent of it. Sometimes, they take decades because she can’t find the shape and connections; she doesn’t know what the story’s about. ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ was begun in 1983. She refers to them as ‘an epic in the imagination’.

Then she gives a tactic she uses if she’s struggling. She says she pretends it’s true, a slice of memoir. This lifts the self-consciousness and she doesn’t need to worry about whether or not it’s literature.

She likes the way in which the specifics of a story, the details that are true, skewer the action/time/place. Although she notes that these details also distance the reader. She finds the small particulars of one particular life an attractive paradox.

The themes of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher are transgression, the breaking of boundaries, crossing. She says there’s a shadowy area of overlap between herself and the ‘I’ of the stories.

She’s then interviewed by academic, Jerome de Groot.

He begins by asking about writing historical fiction and ‘respecting the record’ even though the true record is problematic in itself. Is Mantel aware of it when she’s writing?

She responds that she’s self-aware when she’s finished writing. While she’s in the process, she’s fighting to take herself out of the story. Later she’s aware and she becomes aware of the gaze of others upon her writing and that they’ll try to catagorise what she’s written. So, she says, she begins to do it herself. All historical fiction is now historiographical now though, she says.

de Groot asks how she finds that defamiliarisation?

She tells him that when the stage shows of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies began, people asked her “How does it feel to see your characters come to life?” ‘They were never dead!’ she responds. She says she writes as though she is in the room with the characters. She writes scenes and fits them together towards the end of the process. When she has a big scene to write, she gathers her notes, preparation, research and historical materials and re-reads them all. Then she gets stage fright and jitters for a day or two before stepping on to the stage and writing it. She knows it’s an illusion but she tries to give the reader the impression that they’re in the room.

He asks if that was the problem with ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.

Mantel talks about the things she saw from her flat window that day in Windsor when Thatcher emerged having had an eye operation. She said it looked as though she was inspecting the troops. At that moment, Mantel realised, ‘I’m a security breach!’ She then talked about removing herself and putting someone else in the room. The problems were how do you keep the reader in suspense for an event they know didn’t occur and she didn’t know what the story was about. She tried to cram things in year after year – Ireland. Memory. Then she decided she wanted to publish a short story collection called ‘Ten Transgressive Tales’ but she only had nine stories so she made herself stay in the house for two weeks until she’d finished it! She wrote false endings and combed through it. The difference, she said, came when she realised she was exploring self and the writing life through it.

de Groot asks how would you catagorise the story in terms of your career?

She says it’s a commentary. The crucial moment is when the narrator goes onto the staircase and to the fire door where the house on the other side is a mirror image of the one she is in. It passes into another reality. This is where Mantel says the story asks the reader to remember that history could always be otherwise.

She says she’s interested in turning points in every event/scene she writes. What if someone had been a minute earlier/later/in a better mood? She describes it as ‘a word to the wise’.

What would historians say about Hilary Mantel’s approach to fiction?

She says people aren’t simple-minded. We don’t talk about cause and effect in the same way we used to. She describes her O Level history lessons on the French Revolution: lesson one – the causes of the French Revolution; lesson two – the French Revolution; lesson three – the effects of the French Revolution.

However, she says novelists aren’t obliged to coherence. She moves in an area of ambiguity, of the missing and the lost. She says she’s fixated by documentary evidence but asks how was the document produced? In what language is it written? What’s its purpose? How does it restrict? What’s not on the record? What’s interesting about Henry VIII’s court is that so much happened face-to-face. There never was a record. Everything’s deniable. That allows a writer to work around events.

Mantel mentions de Groot’s book on Anne Boleyn in which he talks about how attracted historical novelists are to her and that period. She says she sets herself to finding a plausible context for those words that glitter. She finds that there’s still an area of mystery after having written and written and written. She’s come to the conclusion that mystery is intrinsic to the story of Anne Boleyn, it’s in the realm of what will never be explained. It means the novelist can move in that space.

She goes on to talk about a form of historical fiction that she thinks is becoming comfort reading in which the past is prettified or the past is horrible and scary as that’s also comforting as we believe it can’t happen to us. ‘We patronise the past.’

She says there is a genre of historical fiction, those novels that were categorised as ‘women’s fiction’ in the past, which were a way of writing about sex in an era before ours. ‘I have to tell it the way it is,’ being a reason to do so. Now, she says misogyny is pornographic. But she’s not going to soften the edges. She’s not pretending that the women in Henry VIII’s day are like ours. She says she’s surprised how many historical fiction writers do that because they can’t bear the reality of it.

She describes historical fiction as a ‘violation of innocence’. The reader knows the character’s fate but the character doesn’t. That puts the reader in two places, alongside the character but also above them where they can see the sword hanging down. It means the suspense comes from us wondering what the character will feel when the sword is cut. She likens it to a horror film. The innocent person walks towards the ghastly cupboard/Bluebeard’s room. The viewer can hear the music and knows from experience there’s a zombie in the cupboard. She says she wants to pin the reader to the moment before the knowledge dawns on the character.

Questions are then welcome from the audience.

Did she realise that images, such as shattered glass, reoccur in her latest story collection?

The stories were written over a number of years. She describes it as gruesome and fascinating to see what you’ve done when they’re placed side-by-side. But it was her copy editor who chose the sequence of the stories to prevent similar images in sequential pieces. When you’re writing the work, you’re deep in writing life, you’re the last person to spot what you’ve done, she says.

The questioner mentions Mantel’s earlier comments on the sword hanging above the character and asks in light of that, was she concerned about Thomas Cromwell’s fall being less well known?

At the beginning, she imagined what her publisher would say to her setting a novel at the court of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell changed everything. He’s portrayed as ‘an attack dog’ but he’s actually ‘incredibly complex and interesting’. She says he gives her a certain advantage but goes on to say that when she’s in the process of writing, her self-consciousness lifts so it doesn’t matter if it had been written fifty times before because it hadn’t been experienced by her. By the time the self-consciousness comes back, you’ve done your work, hopefully, she says. Because the work is a trilogy, however, she’s in two places: able to think about it as a whole but still embedded within it.

Because ‘Offences Against the Person’ is set in Manchester and we are in Manchester, someone asks her what her familiarity with the city is.

She says she was born in Hadfield. Her father’s from Manchester. She lived in Stalybridge until she went to Africa when she was 24. Her husband’s from Ashton and she researched and wrote her first novel ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ in Manchester Central Library.

Which other short story writers do you admire?

Annie Proulx. Her best are 7-8000 words long and Mantel thinks she’s better at those than novels. She mentions Close Range: Wyoming Stories in particular and says that ‘Half Skinned Steer’ is one of the best. (You can read it here, in The Atlantic.)

Alice Munroe. She says the thing is her stories seem easy but when she sits down to try to write like her, she can’t do it. The lyrical, lifting movement is beyond her. ‘I’m too much of a control freak,’ she says.

Jane Gardam. ‘Just masterly.’ It’s light and bubbly and ‘she brings it home beautifully,’ Mantel says.

Why do you think the Tudor period resonates with ours?

She says she’s not sure it does and that the fascination with it began before it was over. The Tudors were very good at making things about themselves. Plays about key characters were on stage before the blood was dry.

Henry was a fascination by Elizabeth I’s reign but a peculiar form of tact was in operation so Henry wasn’t portrayed on stage while Elizabeth was alive.

They’ve endured because we loath but are proud of Henry. He’s a world-beater. He’s Bluebeard. ‘They step straight out of fairy tales and straight back into them.’

The story of Henry’s wives is the story of some women you know/have been/have been married to. ‘You would not dare invent it,’ she says.

They are vivid, colourful and vivacious. ‘Contemporary life fades to the grey of newsprint, pixilates itself and vanishes.’ The distance makes them stand out so vividly.

Where did she get the ideas for Beyond Black?

‘It began, simply, with me.’ Mantel tells us that she was in Windsor and she passed the Star and Garter where they were advertising a clairvoyant. She went in and in the entrance was a portrait of the clairvoyant set up on an easel. There was some drapery over the top and a woman twitching and re-draping it. She realised that was the psychic’s assistant and it made her wonder what you’d put on your CV. She saw the performance.

What she didn’t realise, she says, was that the book was a rehearsal. It’s about talking to the dead.

With that she returns to the lectern to read from ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’.