The retreat to the wilderness is an established literary genre which many writers have either tried themselves or paid homage to, from Thoreau taking himself off to the woods of Walden Pond to WB Yeats with his imagined move to the lake isle of Innisfree. We have come to expect some sort of narrative or character-arc from such an experience; some sort of move towards a realisation of personality or circumstance. Such indeed we find in Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud, although it is perhaps not one we were expecting. She comes to the eventual conclusion that she has built her home in the wilderness in the wrong place.
Not for spiritual reasons, mind, but something much more banal: the award-winning American novelist, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, was under the impression that, in winter, the local authority snowploughed the road to her no-expenses-spared new house in one of the remotest parts of Wyoming, which every year is covered in immense drifts whipped up by hurricane-force winds. When the house is finished she discovers, to her understandable consternation, that it doesn't. What use are kitchen units with local stag's antlers for handles if you can't get there to open them for fully half the year?
Proulx deals with this as best she can in her memoir of the square mile of wilderness she bought to build her dream home, but the bathos can't really be avoided. This reviewer was bowled over by the final sentence: "I had to face the fact that no matter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed." That was not what one was hoping for after slogging through detailed descriptions of how the house was conceived and put up, much of which grows tiresome: "The copper sheets for the two entryways and the upstairs family room ceilings arrived... But where were the Polygal window frames?" There are whole chapters of this stuff.
For Proulx is by no means imitating Yeats and deciding she will go out into the boondocks "and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made".
Forget Yeats. Think Gates, as in Bill, with his famous state-of-the-art mansion, Xanadu, built on the shores of Lake Washington in roughly the same part of the world. Proulx decides to do something similar – not quite $150m dollars' worth, but not cut-price either – on a site flanking Wyoming's North Platte river, which contains a spectacular riverside cliff and is abounding in wildlife.
Bird Cloud (the name she gave to the 640-acre estate) is her account of the enterprise. You can't say she isn't gutsy, embarking on it at 70, but something about her tale jars from the word go. Perhaps it is the reader's sympathy this rich woman is seeking in her struggles to have the Japanese soak tub, the rare Brazilian floor tiles and all the other costly bits delivered and installed on time in her slice of wilderness, in a process which swallows up so much money that eventually – perish the thought – "I had to start selling stock."
Proulx is of course a fine writer, and she vividly evokes the natural world of the wind-torn Wyoming uplands. But she is without some essential humility here; she has lost sight of the simple fact that the details of her life, served up in great dollops, may not be as fascinating to others as to herself. Ultimately the book is like the house, which, for all the money spent and the loving labour carried out on it, was essentially misconceived.