Survival: ‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner and ‘Castle of Water’ by Dane Huckelbridge

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.


Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge

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?


32 thoughts on “Survival: ‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner and ‘Castle of Water’ by Dane Huckelbridge

  1. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    I read Zentner’s Lobster Kings in 2014. It was pretty good (“This was excellent Atlantic Canadian literary fiction until it gave way into thriller mode at its climax. 4 stars”) but, like you, I’m put off by the mystical elements that you mention in Touch.

    I might still give it a try, though. I loved Michael Crummey’s Galore despite the bit of magical realism in it. I guess I should try to stay open-minded. 😉

    • Naomi says:

      I loved Galore, too. I find it really hard to tell when I’m going to like it and when I’m not. Not that I *didn’t* like it in Touch (it was very well done) – I think I just don’t like that I don’t always “get” it. You know?

      • buriedinprint says:

        But maybe you actually do “get” it? If you like it, I mean? Doesn’t that mean that you got it? Also, my apologies if it was my recommendation of Touch which took you in that direction because I would have known your hesitation on the mystical score and I might have deliberately left that out because there are so many awesome parts of the book that I thought you would love anyway. So, I’m sorry, but not totally sorry, if it was me. I also loved The Lobster Kings, and I don’t recall there being anything mystical in that one. Also, I cannot resist survival stories (and I hate them – they give me nightmares).

      • Naomi says:

        I think I’ve known which book I wanted to read for “Z” since almost the beginning. There are only so many writers with “Z” in their names, after all. It was a hard decision between Touch and The Lobster Kings, but I went with Touch because of the pioneering angle, and the winter and the snow (I also love winter and snow!). And I liked the book (loved some parts of it), but I do just prefer to read about the ordinary over the extraordinary most of the time. I hope it doesn’t sound like I didn’t like it!

        To answer your question… maybe it means that I get it, or maybe it means that it doesn’t effect my enjoyment of the story that I *don’t* get it. I don’t know. Now I have to read more “mystical” books to sort this out! 😉

  2. paulfrancisbutler says:

    Great post! I love stories of hardship, danger and survival as much as I dislike those things in real life. A few years ago I steeped myself in tales of mountain climbing and the various disastrous Everest expeditions, but, more recently, I have just read Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void” in which the author recounts the (true) story of getting down from a never-climbed-before Peruvian peak with a broken leg. He falls into seemingly bottomless ice caverns, loses the use of his fingers, has a terrible thirst (there is no water around him just ice) etc etc… Agonizing, intense, genuinely thrilling and best enjoyed in an armchair with a mug of hot chocolate.

  3. Penny says:

    I’ve had Touch on my shelf for what seems like forever! I think the touches of magical realism may appeal, and it sounds almost like the perfect book to read during the winter! Hmmmm…I may have to pull this one from the shelf to read sooner than later.

    I’m reading The Dictionary of Animal Languages which is a bit of a slow, quiet read so far – sometimes confusing and dreamy, so reading Touch may have to wait until I have some space from this one. 😉

    • Naomi says:

      Probably reading two slow, quiet books at once isn’t the best plan. But definitely pick it up at some point… especially if you’re interested in the magical realism!

  4. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    It’s not a survival story, but Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer was absolutely riveting. And sad. But still worth the read. I avoid books with plane crashes if I can. But like A Life in Books, I LOVED the show LOST!

  5. annelogan17 says:

    I had NO IDEA Alexi Zentner was Ezekiel Boone-that’s fascinating! I read Touch a long time ago when it first came out and remember absolutely nothing about it, so that tells you how much I liked it I guess.

    Castle of Water sounds interesting to me, but I’m a nervous flier so I avoid books with plane crashes (although I do have a sick fascination with them). The humour would probably help with calming my anxieties though…

  6. kimbofo says:

    I loved Touch when I read it for the Giller in 2011. Like you, I’m not a huge fan of fantastical / mystical elements in a story but I thought it worked extremely well in this novel.

  7. The Cue Card says:

    Yeah I’m a sucker for survivor tales: but at the moment I can only think of nonfiction books with them: notably Shackleton among others. I’ve heard of Zentner’s The Lobster’s Kings book. Being buried under snow for 2 months would be tough. Ugh. As for the castaway book — it has a very fetching cover. I like how you draw the similarities between the two books.

    • Naomi says:

      I still haven’t read Shackleton, but I hope to sometime. I think survival in the cold tops survival in the heat for me. But just barely. 🙂

  8. Sandra says:

    Another sucker for snow, winter, survival here – though not so much castaway/survival on islands stuff. And I love to see some mystical/magical realism in the frozen north especially – provided that it’s well-placed and appropriate. So Touch is definitely on my list for next winter. And since I have a fun little A – Z of my own going on, that will be ‘Z’ sorted! Thanks, Naomi! 🙂

  9. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’ve noticed that I don’t read survival stories, but I always enjoy reading your reviews of them because I, too, an fascinated by the idea of people simply wandering off, thinking, “wherever I end up, I’ll be okay”–AND THEN SOMEHOW IT DOES.

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