Review: Touch by Alexi Zentner
Sawgamet, the remote northern-Canadian setting of Alexi Zentner’s Touch, experienced a gold-rush heyday after a vagabond orphan named Jeannot caught a fish with a gold nugget in its belly. Touch’s narrator (and Jeannot’s grandson), Stephen, returns to this now busted town after a long absence to attend to his dying mother.
Jeannot and Stephen’s father, Pierre, are “like gods” to the town, legends who “tamed” the land, and Stephen admits from the outset that it is difficult to separate the fact of his family’s history from its fiction. Some of this unique folklore’s history is exposed—when faced with death, for instance, Jeannot had a delirious vision of graceful “snow-angels,” which revealed themselves to be simply prospectors obscured by a blizzard. But some of the magic—like stories about a singing dog—persists without any sort of humbling revelations.
Ghosts, both mythical and personal, haunt the woods, a scenario Stephen characterizes as the land “trying to reclaim” what has been taken from it. The death of Pierre in the winter of the narrator’s tenth year gives the novel its defining image: In an attempt to save Stephen’s sister, who has fallen into the freezing river, his father is trapped beneath the ice and immortalized by winter. Thus, Stephen acutely feels the land’s attempts to take from his family, and in turn hopes “there is something that [he] can reclaim.” To do so, he accepts the fantastical as part of his truth; while reading Zentner’s haunting debut, we are asked to do much the same.