Touch by Alexi Zentner
|Touch by Alexi Zentner|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: George Care|
|Summary: A haunting, atmospheric tale of a family struck by dark tragedy in the enchanted snowy wastes where forests, gold, caribou and creatures are found and metamorphosise into something rich and strange.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: May 2011|
|Publisher: Chatto & Windus|
|External links: Author's website|
Stephen, an Anglican priest is writing a story of three generations, a haunting tale of his childhood set in Sawgamet, an isolated clearing in the snowy forest expanse of North West Canada. It is the evening before his mother's funeral. One loss brings up earlier losses; relating this deeply poignant tale he relates the disastrous event of his father's attempts to rescue his sister, Marie, when on a skating expedition she falls through a dark hole in the thin ice at the turbulent confluence of two rivers. His terrified sister looks towards her father who plunges into the water and both perish in a catastrophe. Consequently, Stephen is to struggle with for many years to in some way to come to terms with this severe trauma. His grandfather, Jeannot, a resilient settler is a stalwart figure who keeps returning protectively into Stephen's life in order to resurrect his own lost love, Martine from the hereafter. This love between Jeannot and Stephen's grandmother, Martine, and also that between Jeannot's brother and future wife blossom through magical events involving the metamorphosis of gold, trees and mountains which move, and malevolent 'qualuplillumits' ogres from a richly various panoply of magical realism.
It is not, on balance, a mystical landscape which Zentner, portrays however, Sawgamet is situated at an indefinite distance along a river from the real town of Quesnellemouthe, situated in British Columbia which from 1862-65 was at the centre of the Caribou Gold Rush. The thaumaturgic elements, which are somewhat reminiscent of Jason and the tale of the 'Golden Fleece' recorded by the ancients, for example in the 4th Pythian Ode of Pindar, here serves to heighten the realism of the exhausting struggles involved in surviving in a harsh climate and difficult location. Daily events such as fishing, hunting or panning for gold and logging acquire a fabulous dimension. The effect of the seasons, the practicalities of timbering and despite backbreaking labour, the domestic comforts of baking and sampling the various fruits of the forest provide a degree of reassurance in a novel which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the darker, sinister aspects of the tale.
The title is deliberately ambiguous in that whilst the family members are deeply moved by their terrible loss, when the bodies are discovered The hands were not touching. Even through the plate of frozen water covering them, we saw clearly that little more than the width of an ax blade separated my father's two hands from my sister's one.
Brooding portents abound and reinforce, indeed magnify an unsettling atmosphere, but this does not stop the enterprising great-uncle Franklin from making a profit through his monopoly trade in timber and prospecting, charging incomers eight dollars for a tin pan. Franklin benefits from the boom that induces Sawgamet change from an isolated and sunlit clearing in the woods to a town where snow and wind cannot deter ten thousand bustling individuals descending upon it, bankrupt men needing a fresh start, former slaves and former slave owners, beat down soldiers, dreamers, adventurers, and even honest-to-God miners boiled over the landscape…
When inspired Alexi Zentner's prose verges upon the epic and the accomplished writing befits the elegiac themes of loss, deprivation and communal change. Given the elevated tone of the narrative voice it is unsurprising that, just occasionally, the monumental can read archaically or even worse, stilted. The response of the reader will depend upon his capacity to respond to the polymorphic elements of magical realism reflected throughout the snow laden forests. Some will be inspired by the undoubted poetry of the writing whilst others may occasionally detect a portentous quality that verges upon bathos. The human chain across the generations provides a strong narrative link but those who otherwise look for a story element that draws the reader along will be somewhat disappointed. In other words, the novel is closer to a prose poem than a page-turner.
'Touch' is a haunting exploration of myth and memory, the determination of a community to survive where quotidian existence can be a challenge. It illustrates how the random chance of sudden prosperity or unforeseen catastrophe has disparate effects upon different persons. It touches the heart with grand depictions of immense vistas of mountain chains rising to the brooding skyline from among pine forests. This is the context for the havoc that can be wreaked on generation upon generation by the sudden axe blows of fate. Chilled and yet inspired, this unusual novel demands a definite response from its readers.
Grateful thanks to the publishers, Chatto and Windus, for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
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