Touch by Alexi Zentner
The cold hovers in the background of Touch the way it must in the Northwoods of Canada: discussed long before its arrival, coming in later than usual or earlier and with ferocity. Each time it settles in like ice -- thick, invisible, potentially deadly.
It's appropriate, then, that the novel begins with two characters crashing through a frozen river, becoming encased in ice. The image, rendered deftly, produces shivers:
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…. The ice, like glass above their hands, thickened as we tried to look further out, to see the rest of their bodies and their faces. The lines blurred, only shadows, dark shapes.
Haunted by the untouchable closeness of this death, the invisible but forceful barrier that is thence drawn between father and son, the narrator Stephen sets out to tell his family's story, retelling the lives of his father and his father's father. Reflecting from a vantage point thirty years after his father's death, Stephen recalls the yarns spun over the years, recounting the hand-me-down narratives and family mythologies as fact.
When his grandfather, the teenaged Jeannot set out in search of gold in the late nineteenth century, he bedded down one night along the Sawgamet River after his dog was spooked by a mythical man-beast. The unexpected overnight stay leads to a gold strike and so the tale -- of a town's development, of a family's creation -- has begun. Or has it?
Because while the discovery of gold may have meant the founding of the fictional mining-turned-mill-town, it feels like a false start to a story that has difficulty getting off the ground. The man-beast and other mystical creatures appear then vanish, their meanings never entirely resolved.
Taken alone, these legends feel like warnings about the danger of living in God's country. Tied together in narrative, a family shaped heavily by nature is rendered. In lesser hands, this technique of alternating storytellers, of taking legends on their head, could lead to unreliability. Zentner's prose, however, prevents that, keeping readers engaged even as they wonder about the meaning of what's to come.
What is, for example, the mystical golden caribou heralding?
Just how, as we're told early in the book, does Jeannot plan to raise the dead?
As in much magical realism, the importance of these apparitions and exclamations serves as a beautiful, lyrical distraction. Characters float in and out of Sawgamet almost as regularly as the logs in the booming lumber town are floated downstream to the mills. It's not only the myths and logs that become slippery. People, too, arrive and then leave with no explanation. Jeannot himself leaves town, gone for nearly thirty years only to returning unexpectedly after his son has died. Stephen -- and readers along with him -- are distracted into wondering about how and why Jeannot plans to raise the dead once he returns; we forget that we should be asking ourselves why the man had ever left.
With winter's presence so heavily entwined with this chilly narrative, Jeannot's return in summer might be mistaken for a sign of good things to come. What little sun makes its way through the trees here, however, gives off no warmth, just as Jeannot's reappearance doesn't illuminate the narrative.
Reminiscent of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses in its detailed descriptions of life in a mill town, Zentner's is ultimately a novel to be read for its gorgeous renderings, its evocative language, its vignettes of life in a forgotten land. Each turn of phrase is so well considered, you'll forgive the slow momentum of the plot, relishing instead in the vivid descriptions of pre-industrial life.
Touch by Alexi Zentner
W. W. Norton & Company