Alexi Zentner’s Touch is a remarkably assured debut novel, part ghost story, part fantasy, part gritty historical fiction, and wholly engaging. Set in the frigid wilds of western Canada, the book strongly evokes the rawness of the 19th century frontier, with its gold rushes and timber booms, its fortunes won and lost, and its relentlessly harsh conditions. It’s a family drama as well, with more than few flourishes of magical realism and a likeable narrator who keeps things moving along.
That narrator, Stephen, is a clergyman who has recently returned to his home town of Sawgamet in western Canada, where he finds his ailing mother at the edge of death. Much of the present day story takes place during the final evening of his mother’s life, as Stephen contemplates her mortality and, as a result, his own. As he prepares for her death, Stephen’s mind plays back over a series of memories, which form the bulk of the novel.
Many of the stories he relates concern his father, who died when Stephen was a child, and his grandfather, who disappeared when Stephen’s own father was quite young. The circumstances of these deaths and disappearances are made clear, little by little, the layers peeling back as the narration goes along.
But there is more here than a family mystery, compelling though that may be. For Stephen’s grandfather was the founder of Sawgamet, and the story of how that town came to be is one of the most compelling in the book. Then there is the story of Stephen’s sister, and of how his father came to be a cripple, and of the terrible winter that snowed the entire town under dozens of feet of snow—leading some desperate citizens to make truy desperate choices to stay alive. All these stories have consequences that tie into other stories, and that wind their way back to Stephen’s grandfather’s disappearance—and reappearance.
For reappear he does, early in the book, with an unexpected mission. “I’ve come to raise the dead,” he tells Stephen and his mother. The dead he speaks of here is not Stephen’s father but his own wife, Stephen’s grandmother. Needless to say, the old man’s declared mission is not met with universal approval: there are some who would argue that it’s better to let the dead rest. In this book, everyone has secrets, and it’s an open question whether there is any benefit to exhuming them.
Author Zentner inhabits Stephen wholly, gifting him with a plain-spoken but engaging voice that keeps the story moving while allowing for a few poetic moments. Even when Stephen is relating versions of stories he has heard from his father or grandfather, his narration is smooth and engaging. Zentner makes it look easy.
More importantly, he keeps the stories compelling and dots his prose with little moments of foreboding. “When he was older, Jeannot grew tall and broad, but on that day, the day that he founded what was to become Sawgamet, Jeannot was sixteeen, whip-thin, wire-strong, and able to both give and absorb a brutal amount of punishment.” Elsewhere, “He could feel the head of the ax pressing against the top of his hand, the weight of his rifle in the other hand, and with a slight horror he realized that by holding both he would be able to use neither. The woods fell silent.”
Descriptions, both of people and places, are clear and to the point. “My mother was never a large woman, but she had been cheerfully fed and active, the sort of a woman who thrived in a town like Sawgamet. I don’t mean to make her sound like farm stock, but neither was she a delicate china doll.” During the epic snowstorm that divides the book roughly in half, we are told: “Jeannot pulled on his boots and jacket and stepped out to the porch. The roof sheltered him, and there was only a small drift of snow skittering on the planks, but the snow had piled nearly level with them. If the snow had been solid ground there would have been no need for steps. He could see nothing past the edge of the porch.”
Such tangible details provide a solid grounding for the more fantastic elements in the story, which I don’t want to discuss too much for fear of spoiling important developments. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of things out in those woods besides moose and quail. Zentner doesn’t go too far in the direction of the magical-realistic, but the strand is significant, and it becomes more so as the story goes along.
Touch is a strong debut novel that manages to incorporate a range of styles in its multi-stranded storyline. It’s not a terribly long book, but it’s an engaging and complex one. This warm, sunny summer might be an excellent time to spend a few days within its snowy confines.