Every so often, a new writer bursts onto the literary scene and readers are left asking themselves: did he or she emerge from Zeus’s head like Athena? So it is with Alexi Zentner’s debut fiction, Touch. This family drama, set in a logging town in northern B.C., has a quirky, Gothic Canadian feel although its Canadian-born author now resides in Ithaca, N.Y. In fact, falling snow is as much a character in Touch as are the deep, dark woods. Think Kamouraska meets The Shining.
Stephen is an Anglican minister who has returned to his hometown of Sawgamet to assume his stepfather’s parish. At the same time, his beloved mother is on her deathbed.This impending loss is coupled with the intense sensation of homecoming and the story naturally trails back to Stephen’s humble roots.
The book opens dramatically with lumberjacks floating logs downriver as Stephen’s foreman father supervises. “I was 10 that summer, and I remember him as a giant.” Family stories are a means for Stephen to honour his ancestors, prepare for his mother’s demise and map out a new life with his wife and daughters: “Memories are another way to raise the dead.”
And raise the dead he does in story after story of the Sawgamet gold rush and the pioneers who remained after the gold fever abated. Stephen’s recasting of family lore is compelling: there isn’t a weak sentence in the book. Like all great writers, Zentner has created a believable and evocative world. The only minor quibble is the title. Set in a remote logging town, Touch doesn’t really match the backdrop or do justice to the heroic characters.