New Face of Fiction, 2011 — Touch, by Alexi Zentner

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner’s debut Touch is a three-generation novel. Jeannot, the grandfather, is the “founder” of gold-town Sawgamet, discovered while he was fleeing an abusive adolescent past — a disaster will cause him to flee again when his own son is a young child, but he will return three decades later. That son, the Papa of the novel, is a logger who lives his entire life in the frontier community — he will die young trying to rescue his daughter who has fallen through the ice while skating on the river early in the book. His son, the narrator, has just returned to the community as its new Anglican priest. He had left almost a quarter century ago at the age of 16 to attend the seminary in Edmonton, went overseas as a chaplain in the Great War and now has returned to attend his dying mother and take over from his stepfather, the incumbent priest who is ready to retire.

Touch is also a frontier novel. The fleeing teenaged Jeannot set up shop in the wilderness here only because his dog refused to go further. It turns out the reason the dog stopped was because he was sitting above a large, buried piece of gold, which Jeannot eventually finds. That not only provides him economic security, it provokes a gold rush — Jeannot wisely gives up prospecting himself to set up a lumber business, selling at very high prices to those searching for ore. Gold rushes come and go, but logging always remains. In the present tense of the book, that business is still booming — now producing the timbers that a nation which has just entered World War II requires.

Touch is also a spiritual book, not just with the Christian narrator and his pastor stepfather, but with the indigenous spirits that come with the territory. The idea of faith and just what to have faith in is ever present in the book. The way that Zentner handles these over-arching, intertwining themes is best illustrated from a quote early-on in the book, as the narrator recalls his father. In the woods, he was a logging foreman who had to be as tough as tough was required:

He pushed them hard, and when they pushed back, he came home with bruises, an eye swollen shut, scabs on his knuckles. He made them listen.

At home, he was gentle. At night, he told us stories about his father, how Jeannot found gold and settled Sawgamet, and then the long winter that followed the bust. He told us about the qallupilliut and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loup-garou and the blood-drinking adlet, about all of the monsters and witches of the woods. He told us about the other kinds of magic that he stumbled across in the cuts, how the sawdust grew wings and flew down men’s shirts like mosquitoes, how one tree picked itself up and walked away from the sharp teeth of the saw. He told us about splitting open a log to find a fairy kingdom, about clearing an entire forest with one swing of his ax, about the family of trees he had found twisted together, pushing toward the sky, braided in love.

Three generations, all of whom have to battle for survival. A punishing frontier, that while yielding both gold and timber, never yields completely. Native spirits, “the monsters and witches of the woods”. It should come as no surprise that omniscient Mother Nature is a fourth thread of the book: She is always present but the dramatic turning point of the novel comes with the winter that featured “thirty feet of snow”.

Any one of those four threads could serve as a defining theme for traditional Canadian fiction — I’m pretty sure if I went back to Margaret Atwood’s 1972 critical work, Survival, I would find examples (if not whole chapters) devoted to each of the four. And while Canadian fiction has moved beyond merely works about “survival”, it does not mean that they have disappeared completely — a couple of years back, Giller Prize judge and British author, Victoria Glendenning, got in some hot water here when she wrote a UK newspaper column that referenced the prevalance of these kinds of themes in contemporary Canadian fiction. You can read a short quote from that column introducing my review of Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice, another Canadian survival novel (albeit a more urban one) set in the same time frame as the present of this novel.

Zentner goes beyond the norm, however, by including all four themes, rather than just one or two. And he complicates matters further by moving backwards and forwards in time — the narrator frequently invokes lengthy memories to introduce stories of what happened two generations ago, but equally frequently returns from those memories to the present to draw implications and lessons from the incidents, both major and minor, that occured decades ago. The constants, of course, are the resources (both mineral and arboreal), the aboriginal spirits and the unrelenting climate that offers as many bad years as good ones.

While the result is not totally successful (let’s face it, a lot of juggling is required to keep four strains with that kind of impact going), for this reader the author succeeded much more often than he failed. The result, and it is to his credit as an author, is that the strength of the book lies not in the portrayal of any of those forces, but in the fully-developed portraits he produces of the characters that must face them. Jeannot, his wife and the pioneers around them all come to life — as do the narrator’s parents and the generation around them. And given that the narrator has just returned to his birthplace when he tells the story, all of this is wrapped up in the future of a character who, at the age of 40, is about to start the next phase of his life in the community called Sawgamet. (I am guilty of reviewer gender bias in concentrating on the male characters — rest assured their female partners are every bit as important to the story and every bit as well-developed.)

I am not sure how well this novel will travel outside of Canada, although Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which has similarities in both frontier setting and some themes, is travelling very well with its recently-announced Orange Prize short-listing and talk of possible Booker acknowledgement (yes, I am cheering for her on both). Perhaps instead of lamenting yet more novels with themes that have always been common in Canadian fiction, it is time to celebrate the way that debut authors are returning to them with even more impressive results.

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12 Responses to “New Face of Fiction, 2011 — Touch, by Alexi Zentner”

  1. Ann Willis Says:

    waiting the read of a great sounding novel

  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    Love that cover!

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: It was only when I saw the cover (I read a proof copy and didn’t see the cover until after I had drafted the review) that I realized I had focused on the male characters and neglected the equally powerful roles played by the women around them in each generation. As is true in most frontier novels, the men may be breaking the trail but the women are every bit as important in ensuring survival. Zentner certainly pays attention to that. This is one of those novels that I think Australians would find has some comparisons because those four over-arching themes are prevalent in your frontier literature as well (The Secret River comes to mind). Okay, you tend to have drought instead of 30 feet of snow, but you get what I mean, I’m sure.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t see why it shouldn’t travel to be honest. It sounds that it may be worth waiting for the next novel rather than this one, but I could see it getting interest overseas.

  5. David Dean Says:

    This was released in the UK a couple of weeks ago (the only one of this year’s New Face of Fiction novels to be so as far as I can tell, as “Deloume Road” was the only one from last year’s batch) and I finished reading it last night. What a peculiar yet mesmerising novel it is. As you say, it is very much a frontier novel – the frontier between civilization and wilderness, between natural and supernatural, the known and the unknown, even life and death – inhabiting a kind of dark fairy tale land between those extremes. I also found it to be a very visual, almost cinematic, novel – every few pages Zentner presents the reader with another powerfully striking image: the hands beneath the ice not quite touching, the flock of birds in Jeannot’s cabin, the “golden” caribou (which features on the cover of the UK edition), the thirty feet of snow…
    The way the book moves back and forth through time is complex, and could easily have ended up being confusing, but Zentner’s characters are so well realised, the different timeframes so clearly defined and vivid, that this never became an issue.
    The one problem I did have with the novel (and this may be where your concern that it won’t travel well comes in) is with some of the more extreme Inuit(?) mythology elements – whilst the otherworldly, almost fairy tale aspects of the book give it its unique character and were part of why I enjoyed it, there were times when I couldn’t quite suspend my disbelief, most notably the appearance of the mahaha (the monster that tickles its victims to death, but seems to be basically a bit thick!). Maybe it was just me, or maybe you need to have been brought up with stories of wendigos, adlet, mahaha and qallupilluit to really appreciate those elements of the story.
    On the whole though I thought “Touch” was really distinctive and impressive, and Alexi Zentner is definitely an author I’ll be following.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thank you again for an excellent, extended comment. One of the problems with reading proof copies of first fiction (and I certainly appreciate getting them) is that you know from the start you will be talking about a book that virtually no one else has had the chance to read and they certainly don’t know the author, unless he is a personal friend (which tends to restrict critical assessment). So the prospect of discussion in comments (which to me is more important than the review itself) relies on people checking in some weeks or months later.

    You and I had a very similar reaction to the novel — mesmerizing is a good choice of description. I found myself often thinking “I shouldn’t be liking this because it just is not my kind of book, but I can’t put it down.” I would agree that the sets of contrasts that Zentner sets up help to create this tension — and his excellent imagery (thanks for bringing that up) serves to add depth, almost like impasto in a painting.

    I had the same problem with the stranger mythology elements — put it down to my own limited interest in that area. I did think at times however that it read as though the author was using them as leverage to get him over some plot issues. In the final analysis, it was a relatively minor shortcoming — although I could see where someone who was less than enthusiastic about the rest of the novel would find it even more grating.

  7. Anne Logan Says:

    Kevin-I loved this book, mainly for some of the same reasons you enjoyed it. The mythical, fantastical aspect of the woods is something that really elevated the work, and I found the characters were much more fully developed and interesting, compared to say, Kathleen Winter’s Annabel.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anne: Welcome, and thanks for bringing Touch back into play on the comment menu. It is a very impressive book — Zentner portrays generations and nature in a way that is most impressive. My fellow jurors on the Shadow Jury have not got to it yet, but I will be most interested in their opinion. In some ways, it is a very “Canadian” book (we do love our frontier fiction) — I also think it has broader appeal.

    For me, the interesting contrast is with The Sisters Brothers. deWitt plays with the Western tradition in that book to successful effect — Zentner in this books heads in the opposite direction in concentrating on a cast of characters to develop his message.

  9. Anne Logan Says:

    That’s a great point-us Canadians do love the frontier novel, and I’ve never heard it put that way, but it’s a perfect way to describe it. Guy Vanderhaeghe, Michael Crummey, Anita Rau Badami, even Marina Endicott (with Little Shadows) write within this tradition, each with their own take on it. Personally, I can take it or leave it, but as many will notice, the frontier novel ALWAYS makes an appearance on Canadian prize lists.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anne: I agree — it ALWAYS does. And for good reason, I would say. Atwood did call her critical book Survival, after all.

  11. BuriedInPrint Says:

    This is one of the Giller longlisted titles that I approached with no expectations; somehow I’d missed the chat about it earlier on, and, so, I had one of those delightfully open reading experiences. Really, it quite swept me away.

    I would agree, though, that it’s not seamless; as you’ve said, there is a lot to juggle and, at times, although I was reading with focus, I had to flip back to check the details which did disrupt the experience slightly.

    But, as a whole, I found it a truly satisfying reading experience and it’s a book that I feel I can recommend more widely than many of the others on the prize list.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I would have been quite happy to see this advance to the shortlist, but I suspect there is an element of me giving Zentner “first book” points in that assessment. Certainly he succeeds more often than he stumbles in a novel that has a fair bit of complexity to it. I read the book in proof form a month or so before it was published so I, too, was not affected by hearing anything about it — I was impressed with the novel from start to finish.

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