The bleaching event that devastated much of the Great Barrier Reef in recent months made it clear that Earth's ecosystems are in crisis, driven to the brink by rising temperatures, pollution, and habitat loss. While there is a tendency to regard this situation as a product of the past century, the reality is that almost every environment on Earth has been irrevocably altered – or destroyed – by humans over the past 10,000 years. And although our impact on the oceans is occupying our minds at present, it is probably forests that have been hit the hardest. Whereas forests once covered much of the Earth, intensive exploitation by humans has destroyed almost eighty per cent of old-growth forests and radically reduced the complexity and diversity of what remains. Nowhere is this process more evident than in North America, where ninety per cent of the forests have been cleared in the four centuries since European settlement.
This transformation provides the underlying drumbeat to Annie Proulx's monumental new book, Barkskins. Her first novel since That Old Ace in the Hole (2002), it traces the fortunes of two families whose circumstances are intertwined with those of the North American forests across four centuries, using their contrasting (and occasionally interconnected) lives to paint a confronting and despairing portrait of the cultural and environmental catastrophe unleashed by European settlement.
The novel opens with the arrival of two young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet in New France, upriver from what is now Quebec. Little more than boys, the two have been bonded to a local seigneur called Trépagny on the understanding they will be granted land of their own to work at the end of their service. But instead of doing so, Trépagny, a man 'full of malignant cunning', sets the two of them to work, chopping and clearing the forest.
Despite being thrown together by fate, René and Charles could not be more dissimilar. René, a woodcutter by trade, was forced to leave France after his older brother was killed in an accident; although he is innocent, René is generous and thoughtful. Duquet, by contrast, 'a weakling from the Parisian slums' with a mouthful of decaying teeth, is possessed of a ferocious determination to escape his impoverished past. Set free in the New World, their different natures propel the two along quite different trajectories: René remains in Trépagny's service, at least until he is coerced into marrying his master's Indian mistress, with whom he finds unexpected happiness and rears a family. Charles, on the other hand, escapes and becomes a fur trader, travelling first into the interior and then across the world to China, changing his name to Duke, and amassing a fortune.
Although they are vividly imagined, these opening sections are also astonishingly violent. Characters are maimed, murdered, and scalped with startling regularity. In part, this is a function of the sheer brutality of the life its characters must endure to survive. But it is also shadowed by the larger and less visible violence of the dispossession of the native people and the destruction of the forest itself.
Not all of this violence is one way: in an unforgettable episode, one of the characters describes the killing by Indians of a man who has each of his orifices sewn up so that he swells up and dies in agony. But there is little question that the two processes are connected, or that what is being erased is not just a people, but a way of imagining and inhabiting the world that honours the landscape.
This sort of brutality is not new in Proulx's work. Yet where in the past her fiction has occasionally veered toward the sort of dour misanthropy that discolours novels such as Accordion Crimes (1996), in Barkskins the effect is quite different. As the characters are swept away one by one, the story shifting ever onwards, what begins to emerge is a powerful – and absorbing – sense of the indifference of time to individual lives and of the randomness of fate.
There is, it must be said, occasionally a touch of the Thomas Hardys about Proulx's tendency to load the cosmic dice against the Sels and the Dukes, ensuring that any happiness will no doubt be quickly – often perversely – ripped away from them. But this tendency is leavened by a genuine sympathy with many of the characters and, in places, a darkly witty awareness of individual foibles and oddities, both sexual and otherwise. More importantly, it does not detract from the book's larger ambition to capture the full scale of what has unfolded over the past four centuries in North America, or the degree to which the limitations of our individual perspectives blind us to its full reality.
In this, Barkskins echoes the preoccupation with deep time and extinction that moves beneath the surface of many of the books grappling with the contemporary environmental crisis that have begun to emerge in recent years. Yet where many of those books have sought to approach the question metaphorically, or through the medium of the fantastic, Barkskins tackles it directly, forcing the reader to engage with the enormity of the catastrophe.
There are places where this is less successful: although they underline the global nature of the crisis, the detours to Australia and New Zealand lack the urgency of the North American sections, and the chapters dealing with the twentieth century seem like an after-thought. For the most part, however, the result is extraordinarily powerful and deeply confronting.
I suspect that some readers will recoil from the novel's uncompromising vision and refusal to offer solutions. But in a historical moment when our despoliation of the planet is on track to wipe out half the world's species, fundamentally alter sea levels, and destroy the world's oceans within a generation, I suspect many will find that it resonates with them in deep and uncomfortable ways. What Barkskins does is to give voice to the howling rage and despair so many of us feel at what is taking place around us, and perhaps just as importantly, to underline the degree to which this process is part of the fundamental nature of our society. As Trépagny declares in the novel's opening sections, 'To be a man is to clear the forest.'