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"Touch" by Alexi Zentner

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In Alexi Zentner’s atmospheric “Touch,” grandfather Jeannot returns to the village deep in the Canadian North woods when young Stephen nears his eleventh birthday, and begins to tell stories. Jeannot founded the village when the dog he was walking overland with got too tired to go on, and settled down to sleep. The stories he tells Stephen flow from two traditions, the tall tale and the fairy tale. They do not spare the frank and deadly detail, nor the outrageous misbehavior, nor the vengeance served cold.

Stephen’s birth comes at a time when he’s too young for World War I and too old for World War II. Thus can his grandfather have founded a boom town in the harsh and unforgiving Canadian taiga. But can the other things his grandfather tells him be true? He says he has encountered a number of evil spirits in the forest and survived them. He survived a winter in a sawmill with his pregnant wife when the snow started in mid-fall and only let up in July. What he did to survive the winter there, and the ghastly retribution flowing from it forms the crux of the story.

Mr. Zentner in his debut shows strong promise in handling the geography of the primeval forest and of the larger-than-life characters that populate this story. The fairy tale aspect is never far from the surface narrative, and pops up at unexpected times. The stories are told by the characters, whose presence we barely notice. It could be Grandpa Jeannot telling the story to Stephen, or Stephen telling the stories in turn to his daughters. All these features of the story tell of Mr. Zentner’s skill and ambition in his first novel. Both are considerable.

An atmospheric story with extreme conditions of snow, river, forest, and fire, and extreme conditions of human survival, which bring out the best and worst in the human beings and the non-human beings, “Touch” presses deeply into our memories and consciousnesses. The style is perfect for the subject matter, and suspending our disbelief rewards us generously here. Take it up if you’re ready for a good, well-told fantasy.

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