Alexi Zentner’s Touch
Knopf, 2011

It seems like stating the obvious, but Touch is all about storytelling.

Sure, all novels are fiction.

They all contain stories.

But they aren’t all about storytelling.

However, Alexi Zentner’s novel is just that.

“I felt like I knew him already. I’d heard so many stories. I still hear the stories, even now, when they are just things that have been handed down.”

That’s Stephen, talking about his grandfather, about the shape that man held for him, in and out of stories (even before he had an actual shape, a body, with which to reflect, and in which to contain, those tales).

“And then we were married,” Rebecca said. “And then we were buried.”

That’s Stephen’s Aunt Rebecca. Readers know her through Stephen’s stories about her too, but we also know her through his grandfather’s stories about her.

And I’m not giving anything away by saying that when Rebecca says ‘buried’, it’s more complicated than it sounds.

“There was nothing out there. Nothing to be afraid of. He needed to remember that not everything was momentous, that sometimes the wind was just the wind.”

Yes, sometimes it is just the wind.

But, mostly it’s not.

Like here:

“The voice came louder, growing as I approached the water, but when I burst from the trees into clear view of the Sawgamet, the voice was gone. The sun shone down heavily, the river called, and the whistle of birds returned around me, but I no longer heard Marie’s voice.”

There are all kinds of voices that the reader doesn’t expect the characters to hear. (Like this one: you don’t need to know who ‘she’ is, only that ‘she’ is no longer living. Though she is still, apparently, speaking.)

“She came to warn me. To tell me to get you away from the river, that the qallupilluit had called you to them.”

And you likely don’t need anyone to tell you that the qallupilluit is something else you won’t be expecting. (And if you don’t know what it is? Then you definitely weren’t expecting it.)

And, sure, tale of frontier-life.

Set on Canada’s west coast.

There are some elements you’ll expect.

Snow, for instance.

But Alexi Zentner has a way of describing it that makes it seem different from other snow you’ve read about.

“He had always thought of snow as something quiet, as something that drifted silently from the sky and lay in dampening blankets on the ground, the trees. It would make a solid whoosh and whomp as it fell from trees and roofs in sheets, but it was not supposed to sound like this. This snow hissed. It crackled against the small house, against his coat, his pants, against the trees. The snow reminded him of fire, of locusts, of devouring destruction.”

Or maybe it’s just that the snow in Sawgamet is different.

So whoever was telling this story from that corner of the world would be making the reader reconsider other snow talk in other Canadian novels.

But then again. That’s the point, right? That it’s Alexi Zentner telling this story.

It’s really quite wonderful. And the wonder drifts silently. And then it hisses.


A man of the cloth claimed the prize in 2009, but I don’t think a story with magical realism elements has ever done so. Even Oryx and Crake was based on stories residing on the last page of the newspaper’s front section. (Please correct me if I’m mis-remembering.)

Inner workings

Bit tricky. Because Stephen has returned to Sawgamet as an adult, trying to reconcile with the past and sort through family stories to assemble something resembling the truth, there is a lot of back-and-forth-ing, er, back-and-past-ing.


“A cloud of smoke shot up. A mesh of flame drifted up and into the air. Martine recognized it as a piece of lace. The lace burned and swirled up through the falling snow, looking for a moment like it was dancing, and then the flames went out and the lace dropped to the ground; blackened gauze.”


Sawgamet, a boomtown in Northern British Columbia, surrounded by wilderness. Partly in the later years of the Gold  Rush. Partly in the first quarter of the 20thC. (Stephen has been in two wars in Europe as a priest before he returns to Sawgamet.)


Rooted in a willingness to engage with the unexplained. Over time, the novel’s characters take hold, but initially the reader’s interest is secured by trusting in a character who, in turn, trusts his singing dog and his gut (not necessarily in that order).

Readers Wanted:

You can believe in dogs who can sing and in caribou made of gold. (At least for awhile.) You believe in love at first sight — and in things that go bump in the night. It didn’t bother you when the rain in Marquez’s Macond0 just never stopped. (And you get the allusion.)

Companion Reads: 
Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line (2010)
Michael Crummey’s Galore (2009)
Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski (2005) Trans. Lazer Lederhendler, French (2008)