Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s second novel The Shipping News (1993) won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction. Her short story Brokeback Mountain from the collection Close Range was made into a powerful film, directed by Ang Lee.

She is now 80 years old and has just published the novel Barkskins, a historical family saga that follows the descendants of two Frenchmen who arrive in the King’s newly claimed territory of New France (an area that today is made up of parts of Canada, the US and two islands that remain under French control).

BarkskinsProulx hasn’t published a novel since 2002 and has spent the last ten years researching, studying, writing about and travelling to visit trees and forests of the world. Her novel has at its heart, the theme of deforestation and uses the two families to illustrate her thinking, that there is no greater protector or more harmonious dweller of a lands natural resources than those who are native to the area.

One of the characters Rene Sel, marries a native Indian woman, the other Charles Duquet, marries the daughter of a Dutch shipping magnate and from then on their destinies and the generations that follow, will navigate different paths, one family struggling to survive and to retain their identity and ways, the other creating a family empire, intent on finding a renewable resource to ensure the business continues to grow and expand.

Again Duquet saw the great weakness of the trade – surplus or scarcity. Beaver might disappear from over trapping or disease or for no discernible reason. Or the Indians took too many. He now regarded tales of immense profits in the fur trade as fables. He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings. He was surprised to discover in himself a wish for children, a wish to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.

Rene and his children learn from his Mi’kmaq wife, their mother Mari, who was a repository of answers to their many questions, for her people had ‘examined the world with boundless imagination for many generations’ already.

Over the months and years he learned from her. His relationship to Mari became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies. They stood opposed on the nature of the forest. To Mari it was a living entity, as vital as the waterways, filled with the gifts of medicine, food, shelter, tool material, which everyone discovered and remembered. One lived with it in harmony and gratitude. She believed the interminable chopping of every tree for the foolish purpose of “clearing the land” was bad.

Parts of the novel are riveting and in particular, Proulx inhabits in an engaging manner, the characters of Charles Duquet and one of his descendants Lavinia Duke, who becomes the head of the family empire and is as ruthless as the men who became before her. It is she who Proulx sends to New Zealand in search of the enchanted kauri forests.

Yes. They have trees. Especially do they have certain ‘kauri’ trees, which experts describe as the most perfect trees on the earth, truly enormous trees that rise high with all the branches clustered conveniently at the top. The wood of these trees is without blemish, light, odourless, of a delightful golden colour, easy to carve and work, strong and long-wearing.

However, at just over 700 pages and spanning 300 years and multiple generations, it is a challenge to keep the characters in mind and as a result some make more of an impression than others, which both quickens and inevitably often slows the pace of reading, a necessary compromise perhaps when illustrating such a significant era of history through the narrative form of fiction.

It is a book of a writer’s indulgence, this is Proulx doing what pleases her; a trained historian spending her time indulging a subject that fascinates and rouses her interest which is also a major concern to her. Her book is a wake-up call, even if its lessons sadly, have been learned much too late.

“Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” Annie Proulx – The Observer, 5 June 2016

I reviewed this book for Bookbrowse and also wrote an article Beyond the Book on the territory of New France, where it is currently Editor’s Pick and available to read by clicking on the link below:

Read Claire’s Review and Article at Bookbrowse

To buy a copy of the book via Book Depository, click on the link below:

Buy Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

 

 

The Good Muslim (Bangladesh #2) by Tahmima Anam

In A Golden Age, the first novel in Tahmima Anam’s Bangladesh trilogy, the focus is on Rehana, the mother of Maya and Sohail and most of the book takes place from March to December 1971, during the Bangladesh War of Independence. It shows how families, neighbours, ordinary citizens coped with war, how they got involved and the effect it had on them all.

Now, in The Good Muslim it is some years after the war and Maya has just returned to Dhaka, to the family home and over the course of the novel we discover her reasons for leaving, her disenchantment with how the war has affected her brother, who is not the same person as he was before. Looking for inner peace and more of an understanding of life, he becomes religious and inaccessible to her, any attempt to influence him, futile. She resists his path and throws herself into a more active, immersive role.

It is the same family, but Rehana is more of a background figure, the home has been taken over by women wearing the burka, there are sermons on the roof and Sohail’s son Zaid runs around the place looking and acting more like the son of a servant boy (there is one scene where Maya takes him shopping for sandals and though his neglect is obvious, she is insulted when the shoeseller assumes he is the child of a house servant).

Once she had given everything for her children. Now she was in retreat from them, passively accepting whatever it was they chose to do: turning to God, running away, refusing to send their children to school. There was nothing of the struggle in her any more.

17th century Mughal fort, Dhaka, Bangladesh

They are living in the newly independent Bangladesh, under a Dictatorship, the shadow of war hasn’t left them. There are men living among them who the population wants tried for war crimes. Then there are the young women shamed by having been made one of the spoils of war, viciously raped, many of them pregnant and unwanted, put on flights to Pakistan, banished, out of sight, out of mind.

Bangabandhu had promised to take care of the women; he had even given them a name – Birangona, heroines – and asked their husbands and fathers to welcome them home, as they would their sons. But the children, he had said he didn’t want the children of war.

Maya has become a doctor, putting her own personal life on hold, she has seen too much and doesn’t feel capable of fulfilling any other role. She helps many of these women and wonders if she would ever be capable of love.

She had told herself many times that marriage could not be for her. Or children. She saw them coming into the world every day, selfish and lonely and powerful; she watched as they devoured those around them, and then witnessed the slow sapping of their strength as the world showed itself to be far poorer than it had once promised to be.

bangladesh map

It’s a sad picture of post-war trauma and the difficulties people have in returning to family life and love after all that they have experienced.

Though an equally easy and immersive read, it’s not quite as engaging as A Golden Age, which was the novel of action, deep in the daily situation of revolution and war.

This is the novel of aftermath, a much more sombre undertaking and a reminder that even in victory, the consequences of war on families are ever-present in their lifetime.

 

Links:

Book One: A Golden Age

A Golden Age (Bangladesh #1) by Tahmima Anam

A Golden AgeDear Husband,
I lost our children today.

What an opening line. Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age plunges you right into the twin events that form the basis of Rehana’s character as a parent, fiercely protective and determined to have them near her.

Dear Husband,
Our children are no longer our children.

The death of her husband and her fight to keep her children, when her dead husband’s brother and his childless wife claim they could take better care of them.

The first chapter begins with that day in 1959 when the court gives custody to her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Lahore, (West Pakistan) over 1000 miles and an expensive flight away from Dhaka (East Pakistan).

The novel then jumps forward and is set in 1971, in Dhaka, the year of its war of independence, when East separated from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh (when you look at the area on a map, they are geographically separate, with no common border, India lies between them).

East West Pakistan 1971

In 1971, Rehana’s children, Maya and Sohail are university students and back living with their mother after she discovered a way of becoming financially independent without having to remarry. Despite her efforts to protect them, she is unable to stop them becoming involved in the events of the revolution, her son joining a guerrilla group of freedom fighters and her daughter leaving for Calcutta to write press releases and work in nearby refugee camps.

He’ll never make a good husband, she heard Mrs Chowdhury say. Too much politics.

The comment had stung because it was probably true. Lately the children had little time for anything but the struggle. It had started when Sohail entered the university. Ever since ’48, the Pakistani authorities had ruled the eastern wing of the country like a colony. First they tried to force everyone to speak Urdu instead of Bengali. They took the jute money from Bengal and spent it on factories in Karachi and Islamabad. One general after another made promises they had no intention of keeping. The Dhaka university students had been involved in the protests from the very beginning, so it was no surprise Sohail had got caught up, Maya too. Even Rehana could see the logic: what sense did it make to have a country in two halves, posed on either side of India like a pair of horns?

Rather than lose her children again, Rehana supports them and their cause, finding herself on the opposite side of a conflict to her disapproving family who live in West Pakistan.

As she recited the pickle recipe to herself, Rehana wondered what her sisters would make of her at this very moment. Guerillas at Shona. Sewing kathas on the rooftop. Her daughter at rifle practice. The thought of their shocked faces made her want to laugh.She imagined the letter she would write. Dear sisters, she would say. Our countries are at war; yours and mine. We are on different sides now. I am making pickles for the war effort. You see how much I belong here and not to you.

Anam follows the lives of one family and their close neighbours, illustrating how the historical events of that year affected people and changed them. It is loosely based on a similar story told to the author by her grandmother who had been a young widow for ten years already, when the war arrived.

When I first sat down to write A Golden Age, I imagined a war novel on an epic scale. I imagined battle scenes, political rallies, and the grand sweep of history. But after having interviewed more than a hundred survivors of the Bangladesh War for Independence, I realised it was the very small details that always stayed in my mind- the guerilla fighters who exchanged shirts before they went into battle, the women who sewed their best silk saris into blankets for the refugees. I realised I wanted to write a novel about how ordinary people are transformed by war, and once I discovered this, I turned to the story of my maternal grandmother, Mushela Islam, and how she became a revolutionary.

It’s a fabulous and compelling novel of a family disrupted by war, thrown into the dangers of standing up for what they believe is right, influenced by love, betrayed by jealousies and of a young generation’s desire to be part of the establishment of independence for the country they love.

It is also the first novel in the Bangladesh trilogy, the story continues in the books I will be reading next The Good Muslim and the recently published The Bones of Grace.

Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but grew up in Paris, Bangkok and New York. She earned a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway in London. A Golden Age won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and was the first of a planned trilogy she hoped would teach people about her native country and the vicious power of war.

In 2013 she was included in the Granta list of 20 best young writers and her follow-up novel The Good Muslim was nominated for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler tr. Charlotte Collins

A Whole LifeDumped with an uncaring relative after his mother dies of consumption Andreas Eggers connects with the mountain more than with the family that barely tolerate him and when he is strong enough to resist the thrashings, will leave and make his own way as a labourer eventually earning sufficient to buy a plot of land up the mountain where he can build a cabin.

He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four-years-old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread.

A Whole Life is a melancholic yet soothing narrative of days and events that affect the life of Eggers, few of its turning points are initiated by himself – only when it becomes a matter of survival or principal. He is somewhat at the mercy of the mountain, the elements and whatever it is that confronts him. It is a gentle, unassuming novella of an unremarkable life, touchingly evocative yet unsentimental, a tribute to small wonders that make up a relatively uneventful life.

His early life stems from the moment of being left in the place of the family, his later life from having carried a dying man down the mountain, causing him to stop in at the inn, where the briefest touch of a woman becomes the catalyst for the next significant turning point in his life.

‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with the fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.
All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again; that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.

Apart from a brief period at war and a longer spell as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, his life is spent living off and around the mountain, a landscape he is at one with, in awe and wary of. It is all that he knows.

Seethaler describes Eggers, his life and environment in thoughtful, elegiac prose creating a man as much in harmony with his surroundings as is possible. He stands for those who observe change and the approach of the modern world from a distance, who accept who they are and where they have been placed and have only the occasional fleeting desire to move, but will do so when it is necessary.

He thought of the fact that, apart from trips to the Bitterman & Sons cable cars and chair lifts in the surrounding area, he had only left the neighbourhood on one single occasion: to go to war. He thought about how once, along this very road, back then little more than a deeply rutted track across the fields, he had come to the valley for the first time on the box of a horse-drawn carriage. And at that moment he was overcome with a longing so searing and profound he thought his heart would melt. Without looking back he got up and ran.

I loved this book, it reminded me a little of Julio Llamazares set in the Spanish Pyrenees The Yellow Rain, another novella with a strong connection to the village/environment, a kind of wistful resistance, imploring the reader to understand what it means to be human and so strongly connected to a place.

No surprise this novella became a bestseller in Germany and Austria and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, we are fortunate to have had it translated so beautifully by Charlotte Collins into English.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.

Robert SeethalerBorn in Vienna, Austria, Robert Seethaler is an actor (most recently in Paulo Sorrentino’s Youth) and writer, he grew up in Germany and now lives in Berlin.  A Whole Life is his fifth novel and the first to be translated into English.

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator, and has also translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

Further Links: 

Irish Times ReviewOne man endures, one day at a time by Eileen Battersby

To Buy This Book Now, Click Below

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos (Hungary) tr. Elizabeth Szász

Fever at DawnAn utterly charming novel based on a true story of the courtship of the authors parents, young Hungarian survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, post World War Two.

Shortly after his father Miklós’s death, Péter Gárdos’s mother handed him a bundle of letters, written in the months after the Holocaust. He read them immediately, every one of them, stunned to discover the romantic story behind his parents meeting, a period they had never talked about or shared and one that might have been lost forever, had his mother not decided to share them.

The novel takes place during the six months that Miklós and Lili were letter correspondents, Miklós who’d survived the camps was diagnosed with incurable TB and told he had only six months to live. He and others were in recovery in Sweden, where they would stay until the had the strength and health to return to whatever remnants of their lives awaited them in Hungary.

Declaring war on death, he wrote 117 letters to young Hungarian women convalescing in other hospitals in Sweden, where many of the Hungarian survivors were being taken care of after the horrors of their wartime experience.

Lili Reich was one of the 117 women who received a letter. She was an eighteen-year-old patient at the Smålandsstenar rehabilitation hospital. It was early September. She opened the envelope and scanned its contents. The young man from distant Lärbro did have lovely handwriting. But he must have mixed her up with someone else. She promptly forgot about the whole thing.

He settled on Lili as “the one”, though she was less certain that she was what he was looking for, but agreed to write to him. Over the next six months they get to know each other through their correspondence and develop a tentative affection for each other.

Miklos GardosGárdos has written a heart-warming, unsentimental account of their relationship and of the characters that surrounded the two young people during this time, their compatriots, the doctors and nurses and the Rabbi who received letters from a concerned friend of Lili, intent on stopping the liaison and her intention to convert to Catholicism.

It has both touching and tragic moments as all these young people wait for news of their families and loved ones, moments the author resists exploiting which could have made this a much more emotionally charged novel and will no doubt make it a heart-rending film, rather he focuses as much on the lighter, more positive moments, the desire to overcome the death sentence, to survive and the importance that the promise of love and the support and solidarity of others contributes to it.

Highly recommended.

Here is a clip of that author talking about that moment of being given the letters and what it meant for him to read them.

Note: This book was and ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi tr. Alison Anderson

Layout 1A woman working in an asylum centre as a translator is called to fill in for an interview. She utters the word she has all but banished from her vocabulary. Yes.

Now she faces the man with the voice she recognises, the man who snapped his fingers and changed her life, in their country, all those years ago.

One last interview with an asylum seeker who’s a bit of a problem, said my interlocutor, who was not anyone I knew. He went on, It’s a Colonel from the Theological Republic. But – I read your file. “Refuses to do any simultaneous translation for military or government personnel from her country of origin.”

Fariba Hachtroudi’s novella (translated from French) is a dual narrative, switching between two characters as they experience the present and remember the past in flashbacks, a kind of first person stream-of-conscious prose that is tense and withholding, though ultimately revealing.

We know bad things have happened, but no one wishes to relive or explain them, their thoughts rarely go there and yet we feel the presence of the past that hangs over them and the danger in the present. They both live with fear, paranoia and suffer from separation, from the memory and pain of love. They seek answers, atonement and their brief meeting will move them closer to it.

Now the Colonel is one of the hunted. He has been reinstated as a citizen. We have become full-fledged compatriots.  But what about the past? Can you just erase it with a swipe of your hand? And that pool of putrefaction that he waded into, without blinking an eyelid? The stench of it?

They live in isolation and with the memory of a great love and yet they have this terrible connection, which they must move beyond if they are to benefit each other. Can one overcome the memory of torture, the victim and the perpetrator and establish some other understanding?

Torture, like love, destroys, distorts, and transforms. Indubitably. Love, like torture, alters bodies. From the precipices of torment. Both love and torture mortify the soul deep in one’s inner chaos. Where the self disintegrates.

It’s a book that would benefit from being read twice as the narrative isn’t chronological, the characters and their loved ones are revealed slowly so thoughts shared in the beginning without reader knowledge add more to the story if we flip back and reread them.

Though a short novella, it requires concentration and acceptance that the threads will become clear, even while things are unclear, there is a mounting tension and discomfort that is hard to articulate, but is testament to the profound, tightly woven writing style of the author, this her first translation into English.

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi

Fariba Hachtroudi was born in Tehran, leaving Iran after the 1979 revolution and settling in France. She spent 2 years in Sri Lanka teaching and researching Theravada Buddhism.

An account of her return to Iran after 30 years in exile was the subject of a memoir The Twelfth Iman’s a Woman? Following that visit she set up MoHa, a humanitarian foundation that advocates for women’s rights, education and secularism.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing a copy of this novel.

Guest Post: ‘Conversations with the Universe: How the World Speaks to Us’ by Simran Singh

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ana who I’ve known since I was 9 years old, went to school with, hung out in London in my 20’s with, celebrated the arrival of the new millennium with and many other great memories, past, present and future.

Claire and Ana playing scrabble in Raglan, New Zealand, just before the turn of the century.

Claire and Ana playing scrabble in Raglan, New Zealand, just before the turn of the century.

Ana is a life coach and mindfulness teacher and will be writing the occasional review on books of a spiritual nature, I asked her to say a little about her reading and life, so here she is in her own words and you can also follow her on her new blog/website Ana Reyes – Life Coach where she will be writing about life issues, life lessons, sharing inspirational resources, reviewing books and conducting life coach sessions, either in person or via Skype.

Meet Ana!

A heartfelt thanks to my friend Claire for sharing her inspiration, motivation & practical know how. Without you I would not be “live!” My hope in these books, is that a sentence, chapter or even entire book supports, nourishes and guides you on your journey. Enjoy!

I have always loved books that inspire, challenge and offer an alternative window through which to view life. I’ve trawled through, and read dozens of books on the library shelves with Dewey Decimal numbers linked to personal growth, meditation, the esoteric, angels…the list goes on. I cannot get enough. Many have made an impression, a fingerprint either small or large and ultimately I’ve learnt from them. For that, and these authors I’m truly grateful.

I was born in the Canary Islands, educated in Catholic schools and live in New Zealand; currently the South Island. Alongside my love of reading inspirational books, I’m a mum, teacher, life coach and yoga student. I have a fascination for astrology and a deep appreciation for my soul group of friends.

I hope you enjoy the reviews and I appreciate your thoughts on the books we explore together.

Review: Conversations With the Universe

“The Universe never stops talking to you. It avails itself of every possible avenue to get your attention.”

Simran Singh first came to my awareness through an interview I listened too. That interview led me to her TED talk, her 11:11 talk radio show and then to this book, ‘Conversations with the Universe.’

It’s a captivating read. Both immense in concepts that challenge our often narrow views of life and wise in guidance on how to broaden our perspective to see the benevolence & beauty within ourselves and others.

Singh is a passionate messenger. She says we are more than we realise. More powerful, more beautiful. In fact Divine. To evolve our Divinity, the world, or our world, guides and communicates to us on a daily basis.

The key for us, is to notice the signs, synchronicities and symbols that fill our days and dreams and to see them as self-created messages that encourage and guide us into alignment with our highest good. Observing these messages, whether it is a song on the radio, a repeating number or an alarm going off in the distance, all have relevance if we choose to notice.

universeGiven this, our world is a classroom in which we have abundant opportunities to heal and transform. Through this lens we are our flat tyre, the butterfly on the windowsill, the flooded basement.

The question to ask ourselves is: What is before me? What is here for me to heal/learn/grow? In this view our outer world is a reflection of us.

There are anecdotal stories woven into the chapters illustrating nothing in life is random, that all is a symphony asking us to become who we are meant to be. The true “Self.”

“We are the mess, the message and the messenger of our lives.”

‘Conversations with the Universe’ is a deeply compassionate book. It emphasises self-reflection and inner healing to free ourselves of suffering and at the same time reassure us:

“Whether you are stuck in your muck and liking it or rewriting your story and becoming the hero, there is magic in your midst.”

We are encouraged to live bigger, with less fear and to see beyond our narrow ‘reality’ (really illusion). To understand our birth right is to live fully and joyously.

The Sunset HD Desktop BackgroundThere are practical exercises throughout the book to encourage reflection of both our inner and outer worlds. Acceptance, awareness and forgiveness are necessities: we are human, imperfect, but at the same time magnificent Divine co-creators of our life.

“You are not on a journey, YOU are the journey. That journey is asking you to experience YOU in discovery. This means that there is no end goal or destination but a never-ending path of realizing ALL that you are. Step into the magnificence of infinite possibility.”

I loved Singh’s palpable wisdom and inspiration, captured through her beautiful writing style. Paragraphs and pages needed to be re-read to allow my mind and heart to expand around the author’s vast view of life. It’s a book that could be re-read many times and with each reading new insights would emerge. It’s definitely one that will stay on my bedside table for a long, long time.

Our lives are designed beautifully. They have been created in the most unconditionally loving way, without interference or hindrance, other than that of our own choosing. But they also have the gifts of ‘choice’ and ‘asking.’

Thank you so much Ana for sharing with us your own insightful and thoughtful review of such an inspired book, full of resonance and wisdom. We certainly do need more of these reminders in our daily lives, not just to keep us in line with who we really are, but to drown out the often loud and distracting noise of the media.

Buy This Book

If you are interested to learn more,click on the link below to buy the book.

Buy Conversations with the Universe at Book Depository