Hardcover: 264 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (April 4, 2011)
(reviewed by Sarah from Word Hits)
“Stay off the ice,” wrote Alexi Zentner, as he signed my copy of Touch. I hadn’t yet read the book, so I didn’t understand that loaded and ominous warning. Initially, I was drawn to Touch by the cover image: a dark, alluring forest brightened by an eerie glow of snow. Neither the cover, nor the author’s tease, disappointed. Touch is a riveting and spooky read.
The novel takes place in Sawgamet, a frontier town in the north woods of Canada that feels a bit like the haunted northern reaches in A Game of Thrones. But you don’t have to wade through thousands of pages before the monsters in these woods make their presence felt.
Touch is at once the coming-of-age tale of Stephen, a boy eager to join his father out in the logging cuts, and also an elegiac ode to the town and its hardships. Through memories and vivid details, Stephen’s story is interwoven with that of his father and his grandfather. The book offers a gritty, atmospheric look at daily life in Sawgamet, which was founded during the gold rush and then boomed into logging. Zentner takes us seamlessly from the 1940s back to the 1880s and in-between. These flashbacks are not at all distracting, but contribute to the narrative pull of the book.
All the while, however, Touch exudes a creepy, supernatural menace from the ghosts, witches, and monsters that lurk in the forest. “The idea of the unknown that comes with being in the woods is something that is familiar to anybody who has gotten far enough away from the city to feel truly alone,” said Zentner. “When you enter thick growths of trees, or when you are out in the wilderness at night, you can suddenly realize how alone you are, and no matter how rational or how much of a disbeliever you are, there is the opening for the unknown.”
I am deliberately elusive with plot details, because I don’t want to ruin the suspense or the surprises. About halfway through I braced myself for disappointment, wondering if the author could keep it up. But fear not, there are no LOST-like disappointments here. The ending resonates and satisfies.
Zentner, from Canada, taps into Inuit lore. “The Inuit mythology that I use in Touch is something that I very much took and altered so that it was presented through the view of the white settlers in Sawgamet,” he explained. “While some of the monsters and magic in the book are based on that Inuit mythology, all of it is turned, at least slightly, from the original tales.” Still, as a reader, I got an extra thrill when I googled these creatures and saw their rich histories.
Zentner describes his writing as “mythical realism,” grounded in lore and oral traditions, rather than the magical realism of Latin American writers. “Magical realism is often about the way that magic can insert itself into our lives,” he said. “But mythical realism is about the way that magic is already a part of our lives, but we don’t always notice it.”
“It’s important, as adults,” he added, “to remember that we should still be able to see the world with a sense of wonder.” This certainly comes through in his writing, which is beautiful, stark, and enchanting. Touch has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flahery-Dunnan First Novel prize, Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In 2008, Zentner won both the Narrative Fiction Prize and the O. Henry Short Story award.
Touch spins out like a haunting yarn. You have the sense that this ghost story is being told to you around a campfire and that you are somehow part of it. But beware of the shadows in the trees.
Sarah is graciously providing a copy of Touch for giveaway. To enter, please fill out this form. The winner will be contacted via email on Friday, October 21! Good luck to all who enter!