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Review of Touch

April 17, 2011

TouchTouch by Alexi Zentner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

       Sometimes the wind is just the wind but in “Touch” that is rarely the case. If you’ve ever heard the wind cry “Mary” while walking through the woods, or thought you’d seen your long-dead grandmother at the market, or wondered if the bogeyman under the bed was going to kill you while you slept, then nothing in “Touch” will strike you as out of the ordinary.
       Still, be prepared to break out in goose bumps and feel a shiver run down your spine every now and then because Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, though not technically a thriller, is a very thrilling read. He takes the reader on a myth-building journey deep into the woods of Northern Canada where Anglican priest Stephen has returned on the occasion of his mother’s imminent death. The town is Sawgamet and it is a dark, cold place where “the snow in winter can make or break one’s faith.”
       Stephen recalls, in this multi-generational story, how the events of over 30 years ago shaped his family lore. Jeannot, his larger-than-life grandfather, and grandmother Martine founded the town with Flavieur the dog who could sniff out where the gold was buried and who, when he would go mute, signaled a “prelude for a miracle.”
       Stephen’s father Pierre, who was a logger until he mangled his hand, and Stephen’s sister Marie meet a tragic end one day on the ice. That scene is one of the most evocative and emotional descriptions that I have read in some time. When the bodies were discovered frozen into the ice: “The hands were not touching. Even through the plate of frozen water covering them, we saw clearly that little more than the width of an ax blade separated my father’s two hands from my sister’s one.”
       Zentner fills “Touch” with myths of men long gone, water witches and streams filled with syrup. His prose and dialogue are lyrical and riveting. At one point, Father Earl’s wife says, “the sky hurts,” referring to clouds that look bruised. You can smell the “gagging scent” of rotting flesh that Zentner uses to portend death. Pondering his mother’s death, Zentner strikes a chord in all of us when Stephen says, “to write the eulogy is to accept that very soon my mother will be truly and finally dead, that I will be – even though I am past forty – an orphan.”
       The landscape conjured in “Touch” and the feeling of inescapable destiny by way of one’s marked past, reminded me of the 1971 film “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” The same mud, snow, cold, gray atmosphere is pushing down on the characters. There are the unexpected and deadly fires, lumber mills full of toughened men and the forces of good and evil colliding in time and space. Check it out if you’ve never seen it – it’s one of my all time favorite Robert Altman films.
       I love the way Zentner shows us how every family creates myths to explain the way we become who we are. In each retelling of family lore, details are added or embellished until our ancestors take on the status of supernatural heroes or hellions depending on the family. That is certainly true in “Touch.”
       There is much to like about “Touch” and I expect that we will see great things from Zentner down the line.
       Alexi Zentner was the winner of the 2008 Narrative Prize and was featured in the 2008 O. Henry Prize Stories.

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