Their common ground? All came in at the 700+ page mark. And that’s it really. But I read them consecutively and so each was unavoidably judged against the other.
First up then was Annie Proulx’s “Barkskins”, published in January 2016. This is the story of two lineages – Sel and Duke – started by two men we meet in the 17th century. They’re indentured frenchmen tithed for three-years to a landowner in Canada. One escapes, the other remains, and their lives follow very different tracks thereafter.
Hardworking Rene Sel remains, marrying an Indian woman, and the Sel line is thereafter entwined with the sad history of the native Indian. Ambitious Charles Duquet – later changed to Duke – escapes to build an empire. The Dukes make a fortune out of logging, whilst it’s the Sels who are skilled loggers.
But the star of the book is wood, forests to be precise, and their impact on our world’s eco-system. There’s a constant belief expressed by generation after generation that the forests were never-ending resources, until they were gone that is. The warning voices are lonely, even at the end when it’s the main focus of the tale.
Then came the classic – Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”. I’ve read far too few classics and was delighted to add my vote to this when it came up in my book club selection. In essence, a cracking tale of a wrongly-imprisioned man, escaping, finding a fortune and then meting out his revenge against those who wronged him. If this had stayed as an adventure story, I’d have found it hard not to give it four stars.
But … it didn’t. Oh no … There’s was just so much beatification of the Count, with the entire cast of the book seemingly hanging on his every word, allowing him to put even those he loves through painful experiences simply to achieve his revenge on others. And oh wasn’t he ever so pleased with himself? Talking constantly about his strong mind, whereas the minds of others were weak. Bleagh.
The pacy, action sections gained it the stars. They were lively and interesting, had you wondering where it was all going and how it was going to be done. Those sections of the book were a great read.
What Mantel famously did with Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” she does here with the French Revolution. This time, it’s all crammed into one book , chock-a-block full of characters. And, if you read this in Kindle format, that can be a drawback, for the list of characters at the front of the book is tremendously lengthy. It nearly put me off reading further and I wasted some energy in attempting to work out how to pop back-and-forth to it as I read. But, frankly, I didn’t need to. The characters were so well drawn and defined that I never felt the need of it.
I know very little about this time period and of, the vast cast of characters, had only heard of Robespierre. By the end, I “knew” more, although what I knew was the imagined flesh which Mantel puts upon the bones of history.
Pacy, filled with frustration at the factions fighting, the inevitability of the ending felt almost breathtaking. A corker of a read and one which has made me seek out more reading of a pure history nature on the subject.
So, why did two achieve the fourth star and the other – the classic – did not?
In terms of drawbacks, “Barkskins” had two limitations. Proulx seemed determined to ensure that both the Duke and the Sel storylines got evenhanded coverage. In order to achieve the necessary sweepingness of the tale over such a lengthy period of time, the book needed either to be longer, or for Proulx to be more brutal about leaving bits out. For example, the trip to New Zealand seemed an unnecessary diversion. As a result, the ending felt too rushed (and was a tad soap-boxy). Without these two drawbacks, I’d had given that rare fifth star.
Hilary Mantel – unbelievably annoying writing style aside – writes a downright rivetting read. It’s not that her characters are without failings or faults, rather that she doesn’t invite us to like them. They’re just there, warts ‘n all, and we can like them … or not. Without that idiosynchcratic writing style, she’d have got the rare fifth star with this one.
Whereas with “The Count of Monte Cristo” I found the Count, himself, not just unlikeable, but unbearable and unconscionable. Yet it appeared we were intended to admire him – and I simply could not. Indeed, I’ve read reviews describing Edmund Dantes as without flaw, a truly good person. Hmmm … can a truly good person react the way he did when wronged? The insistence that it wasn’t revenge he was seeking, rather acting as the hand of God doling out punishment where it was due … just no. Possibly a train of thought which would work better when the book was published (1844), but now …? Attempting to wrap up a classic tale of revenge in all the other malarkey robbed it of the fourth (let alone fifth) star.
Proulx and Mantel wrote their “bad” characters in a balanced manner. Not hiding their unloveable characteristics but, more importantly, not going on – endlessly – about their
perceived positive aspects … unlike Dumas.
© Debra Carey 2017