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.

 

 

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

molokaiBorn in Honolulu, Rachel’s Kalama’s memory of childhood with her mother, sister and two brothers is limited to her first six years, a time when life was full of simple joys and memorable returns, the homecomings of her father Henry, who was away at sea for months on end, his return always marked for Rachel by an anticipated gift, a doll he never failed to present to her, from one of the places he had recently visited.

The last doll she received from him was a nesting doll from Russia that he’d bought in Japan, the matryoshka.

Things started to change when her Uncle Pono fell sick and not only were they not allowed to see him, they weren’t to speak of him to anyone.

After a fight with her sister Sarah, which resulted in scratches on her legs, her mother notices a patch of pink skin with a nasty gash in the middle, one that doesn’t cause Rachel to flinch, something that worries her mother and causes her to become paranoid with fear, fear of leprosy, a disease that carries not only a terrible social stigma, but a life sentence if discovered by the authorities, and they will hunt you down at the first hint of suspicion.

It is the beginning of the end of childhood as Rachel has known it when the Health Inspector calls.

Brennert’s novel, largely based on historical fact, follows Rachel through the quarantine process of those suspected of carrying leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and on to life in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i, allowing a glimpse into the community of sufferers and carers, of the pain of isolation and the irony of the freedom of this close-knit, albeit closed community.

“Love, marriage, divorce, infidelity… life was the same here as anywhere else, wasn’t? She realized now wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”

It follows the life of a girl raised by Franciscan nuns, befriended by lepers, loved by her Uncle and an adopted Aunty, coming of age, finding one true love, deprived of maternal love and healing both physical and emotional wounds.

Brennert said of his novel:

“I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifices…”

And one his main characters, Sister Catherine:

“I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death is the true measure of the Divine within us…I use to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death.”

Not just a tale of their suffering and coming to terms with life and death, it is a clash of cultures as a local population is forced to accept the beliefs and rituals of outsiders, a colonial and christian inheritance, where to stay true to one’s own traditions was seen as an act of rebellion or work of the devil even.

Recommended if you enjoy historical fiction based on real events and enjoy literature set in the islands of the Pacific.

End of an Island Era

A mere 16 leprosy patients remain today in this isolated community of Kalaupapa, a place through whom thousands of sufferers have passed since the 19th century. At present, the youngest member of the colony is 73-years-old. Although mandatory exile was lifted by the state in 1969, a number of patients voluntarily decided to stay. They were offered lifetime housing, amenities and healthcare and did not wish to open their community and environment to uninvited visitors. This may change however, when the colony’s last patient dies.

In an interesting article written by Philip Ross in the International Business Times on 5 May, 2015, he mentions:

Kalaupapa’s history is a tragic tale. In 1866, the Hawaiian government banished anyone diagnosed with leprosy, a chronic bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease, to Kalaupapa. More than 8,000 lepers were forced to relocate to the island at a time when there was no cure for the infection.

Men, women and children who had the disease were stigmatized and shunned as outcasts out of fear that their condition was highly contagious. The disease, however, cannot easily be passed from one person to another. Leprosy is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae that grows slowly and affects the skin and nerves. Symptoms of leprosy include skin sores, and lumps and bumps that disfigure the body and can last for several weeks or months.

Read the entire article and see some incredible pictures here:

Further Reading:

Philip Ross, International Business Times Article: Kalaupapa, Hawaii Leper Colony: A Look Inside The Remote Island Home For The State’s Few Surviving Leprosy Patients

 

Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka'i, circa 1870: Creative Commons

Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka’i, circa 1870:
Creative Commons

 

The Autobiography of my Mother by Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of my Mother is a book that was being discarded from our local English library that I pounced on when I discovered it in the collection of books that hadn’t been borrowed for years and therefore must make way for others.

The 7 books I rescued from the Annual Library Sale!

The 7 books I rescued from the Annual Library Sale!

I already have two slim novellas by the same author that sit unread, but something about this novel, for it is fiction, despite the playful title, insisted it should be read at once. Not just a fabulous cover, which is repeated inside as chapter headings, each chapter reveals a section of the photo, until the last one revealing the entire portrait – but the comments from various publications and writers who sang its praise back in 1996 when it was first published.

“Writing in precise, lyrical prose that uses the repetition of images and words to build a musical rhythm, Jamaica Kincaid conjures up the world of Dominica in all its beauty and casual cruelty, a world in which the magical coexists with the mundane, a world in which the ghosts of colonialism still haunt the relationships between men and women. In doing so she has written a powerful and disturbing book.” NEW YORK TIMES

And let me say from the outset, I absolutely loved this book, its language, its voice, its poetry, the complexity of its narrator, who could be so distant yet simultaneously get so under your skin. There is a raw but brutal honesty to it, that disturbs and is to be admired at the same time, it is so full of contrasts and so compelling and beats its rhythm so loud, I almost can’t describe it.

Now that I have finished it, I want to read more by Kincaid and just now before writing this review I looked up a little about the author’s own life, and now I am even more intrigued, what an amazing story and experiences which are often at the heart of what she channels through her stories. A unique voice indeed.

So for those who, like me, knew little about this author, a little background before talking about the novel.

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in the capital city of St. John’s, Antigua in 1949.  Antigua is a small island in the West Indies (a region of the Caribbean basin), colonised by the British in 1632 that became independent in 1981.

Caribbean

 

Her mother was from Dominica and her biological father, a West Indian chauffeur, whom she didn’t meet until her thirties.  Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, when the first of her three brothers was born. Until then she’d had the sole attention of her mother, so life changed dramatically thereafter and at 17 she left for America, severing ties with her family and did not return to Antigua for 20 years, though it resonated deep within her creativity.

She still lives in the US today and teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. Her most recent novel See Now Then was published in 2013 after a 10 year absence, depicting in her original style the unravelling of an interracial marriage.

Autobiography MotherIn the autobiography of my mother, we encounter Xuela Claudette Richardson, who narrates her life looking back over seventy years, though the sense of her life reads as if it is being lived in the present, so vivid are the memories, so visceral the experiences. Her mother died in child birth and her father left her with his laundry woman until she was seven, when he remarried and came back for her.

She recalls the moment vividly through the senses and how it made her feel.

“I thanked Eunice for taking care of me. I did not mean it, I could not mean it, I did not know how to mean it, but I would mean it now. I did not say goodbye; in the world that I lived in then and the world that I live in now goodbyes do not exist, it is a small world. All my belongings were in a muslin knapsack and he placed them in a bag that was on the donkey he had been riding. He placed me on the donkey and sat behind me. And this was how we looked as my back was turned on the small house in which I spent the first seven years of my life…”

Through the narrator looking back over years and at events that she re-experiences as she recalls them, we see how it was then, that something, whether it is the lack of maternal love or the makeup of this character, nature or nurture, contributes to her way of being in the world in an emotionally detached way. She responds to instincts and observes acutely her own responses and is able to look back on them and describe and account for them, but there is a sense of something missing, that appears through the recurring dream of a mother climbing up and away from her and the questions she asks herself throughout her life.

“Who was my father? Not just who was he to me, his child – but who was he? He was a policeman, but not an ordinary policeman; he inspired more than the expected amount of fear for someone in his position…At the time I came to live with him, he has just mastered the mask that he wore as a face for the remainder of his life: the skin taut, the eyes small and drawn back as though deep inside his head, so that it wasn’t possible to get a clue to him from them, his lips parted in a smile. He seemed trustworthy.”

Yet nothing is ever as it seems and she depicts her father as dishonest and grows up in a culture and environment of distrust, discouraged from making friendships, made to see that no one can be trusted.

“We were not friends; such a thing was discouraged. We were never to trust each other. This was like a motto repeated to us by our parents; it was a part of my upbringing, like a form of good manners: You cannot trust these people, my father would say to me, the very words the other children’s parents were saying to them, perhaps even at the same time. That “these people” were ourselves, that this insistence on mistrust of others – that people who looked so very much like each other, who shared a common history of suffering and humiliation and enslavement, should be taught to mistrust each other, even as children, is no longer a mystery to me. The people we should naturally have mistrusted were beyond our influence completely; what we needed to defeat them, to rid ourselves of them, was something far more powerful than mistrust. To mistrust each other was just one of many feelings we had for each other, all of them the opposite of love, all of them standing in the place of love.”

Her father’s wife who is resentful toward Xuela and reminds her often that she can’t be her father’s daughter, soon bears two children, a boy and a girl. Though there is no love between them, Xuela doesn’t hate her, she has sympathy for her.

“Her tragedy was greater than mine; her mother did not love her, but her mother was alive, and every day she saw her mother and every day her mother let her know she was not loved. My mother was dead.”

At 15, her father removes her from his home and takes her to live with a business partner and his wife as a boarder. She develops a close friendship with the wife, Madame LaBatte, observing with the same acuity their relationship and way of living and enters womanhood herself, observing and experiencing changes in her own body and the effect it elicits in others.

She makes decisions about her own womanhood, about her body, about mothering. And she lives her life in accordance with those decisions. She marries, she discovers love and seems never to lose that ability to see through the illusions that surround all those things without sacrificing pleasure and contentedness.

“And this man I married was one of the victors, and so much a part of him was this situation, the situation of the conqueror, that only through a book of history could he be reminded of a time when he might have been something other, something like me, the vanquished, the defeated. When he looked at the night sky, it was closed off; so, too, was the midday sky, closed off; the seas were closed off, the ground on which he walked was closed off. He did not have a future, he had only the past, he lived in that way; it was not a past he was responsible for all by himself, it was a past he had inherited. He did not object to his inheritance; it was a good one, only it did not bring happiness; and his reply to such an assertion would be the correct one: What can bring happiness? At the moment the conqueror asks such a question, his defeat is secure.”

And at the end I ask, who is writing this story? Who is this mother who had no mother and no children? And in the dying pages, she will answer the question and we may realise we knew it all along.

the autobiography of my Mother plumbs the depths of maternal love and its lack, mother daughter relationships, self-love, absent fathers and the latent influences of enslavement and occupation, how they continue to distort reality even when they are no longer present.

I find it almost impossible to describe the reading experience, except that it left me asking “How did I not know about this book?” The voice is so unique and powerful and much more than an imagination, it is rooted in something strong and yet transparent and is utterly compelling.  Don’t read this for story, this is about writing and thus reading through the senses, Jamaica Kincaid creates prose that inhabits them all.

A 5 star read for me!

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