Touch by Alexi Zentner
I read Touch for my A-Z CanLit Project, thinking it was my last book. But I missed “Y”, so I still have one more to go… which I’m hoping will be Effigy by Alissa York.
Touch turned out to be more unusual than I was expecting. I was drawn to the “three generations of a pioneering family, who carved out a space in the wilderness“. I’m a sucker for pioneering and/or wilderness stories. But there were also a lot of mystical elements to this story, which is not my favourite thing. However, they are woven in naturally and fit right in with the tone of the novel.
Were I more like my grandfather, I would simply refuse to believe in my mother’s death. Were I more like my grandfather, I’d believe that even when my mother does die, whether it is tomorrow or tonight, somewhere out there, past the window, past the train yards and the houses, into the cuts and woods, she would still roam.
What I liked most about the book was hearing about how the town of Sawgamet was established, and how it grew, starting with only one wandering teenage boy, his dog who refused to go further, and their trusty ax.
I also enjoyed reading about the winter that the whole town was buried in snow for 2 months. One couple had to take drastic action to stay alive, which led to unavoidable consequences.
Despite the presence of ghosts, murder, fire, and traveling bones, Touch is a slow, quiet novel with a strong sense of place and family ties. It’s full of wonderful imagery of the settlement of Sawgamet; it’s river, it’s cold climate, and the woods surrounding it all.
Sawgamet has changed. The darkness driven away. But, I tell my daughters, there are still parts of the forest that remain secret, places where the mountains can loom close upon us, where shape-shifters fly past us in the dark.
Touch was a 2011 Giller Prize nominee and is Alexi Zentner‘s first novel. He has also written The Lobster Kings, another book I would like to read. Something I just learned… Alexi Zentner also writes under this name.
I read about this book on someone’s blog, (but can’t remember whose… let me know if it was you!) and I couldn’t resist the castaway plot. And even though I’m probably not suppose to say this about a book that includes plane crashes and death, it was great fun to read.
Next to the plot, what I noticed most about the book was the writing style. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but it was like storytelling from a distance. I felt like I was looking down on what was happening at a far enough distance as to make the sad a little less sad, the scary a little less scary, and the improbable a little less improbable. The humour helps with not taking the story too seriously. You can tell the author is having fun with this book. (Which, in my opinion, lets him off the hook for a few scenes and elements that would otherwise have induced some eye-rolling.)
Deserving or not, they hated each other, nearly as much as they hated the island, and neither could imagine it any other way. Even listening to the radio had become a major source of conflict, as the two of them would argue for hours before agreeing upon a station. In the end, they found it best to leave the thing off when they were together. No music programs, no weather reports, just spiteful silence – which was why they had no idea as to the danger that was headed their way.
The main plot of the story (plane crash, two people stranded on an island, finding food and water, building shelters, fishing, hoping for rescue, storms, sunburns, the threat of blindness, but oddly no biting insects) is broken up with flashes from the present, which made me all the more impatient to find out how the character(s) get to that point.
The author may have left out the misery of mosquitoes, but the octopus scene is one I will have in my head for a while.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though these two books have anything in common… but after reading them I noticed they were both strong stories of survival, one just more obvious than the other.
Castle of Water is an obvious survival story, with characters being stranded on a deserted island. Touch is a pioneering story; the characters having long, hard winters to contend with, and at times, are almost as isolated as they would have been on their own islands. In both books, the characters have to figure out how to live in their respective extreme conditions.
I also noticed another similarity… both of these books are rooted by a love story in which one partner long outlives the other, but continues to honour their memory. In very, very different ways.
Do you have a weakness for wilderness/survival stories? Do you have any to recommend?