Wednesday, December 22, 2010

TOUCH by Alexi Zentner (from the ARC) due April 2011 from Knopf Canada

Alexi Zentner is one of Random House of Canada's 2011 New Faces of Fiction and if you are the kind of reader who yearns for a lyrical tale well told, this novel is for you. With such lush, sophisticated and haunting prose, it's hard to believe that this is Zentner's first one.

TOUCH opens in a logging village in Northern BC in the early 20th century where the narrator Stephen (now an Anglican priest with a family of his own) is his boyhood self watching his foreman father standing "at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on." In that distant past Stephen shows us the heart of the loss of his childhood, an incident that resonates in every winter landscape. And, there we meet his grandfather Jeannot, a tough and mysterious giant in Stephen's memory, a man whose convictions hide behind Stephen's adult faith and doubt.

As I was reading, I couldn't help but think of Joseph Boyden's THREE DAY ROAD and the way that it honours Native spirituality and the healing power of stories through the tales Niska tells her nephew on their final journey home. Here Zentner does the same by giving equal measure to Jeannot's wild beliefs as he does to Stephen's more conventional ones, honed as a chaplain on the WWI Front from which he returned, "getting off the ship the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed."

The novel shifts seamlessly back and forth between past and present, a present wherein Stephen has returned to his childhood village to bear witness to his ailing mother's death, to deliver her eulogy, and to take over his stepfather's responsibilities as the pastor of the Anglican Church in Sawgamet. Stephen admits (and this is the heart of this marvelous book), "no matter how many times my thoughts returned to the winter I was ten, no matter how many questions I asked my mother as she lay dying, no matter how many stories I have heard about my father and grandfather, there are still so many things I will never know."

There are still so many things I will never know, but in reading TOUCH I am a little bit closer to their truth.

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