Alma, the narrator of Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's slightly eerie first novel, works as a treeplanter in the bush country of northern Ontario, where she falls in love with Willem, a Belgian working illegally. The story moves back and forth in time between Alma's experiences with the wacky and weird treeplanting crew and her eventual abandonment of civilization for life in a shack where she begins raising her newborn child with the help of Jake, an old trapper/bushman who may or may not exist. There Alma works at weaving nettle cloth in imitation of a girl in a Flemish folk tale, who makes a shroud for the evil Count Burchard. In the tale, which Kuitenbrouwer intersperses in Alma's story, the beautiful young Renelde weaves while the count, who will not allow the girl to marry because he wants her for himself, grows sicker and sicker.
The contrasts in the story are powerful, especially between the peasants of the folk tale, who lived at a time when Europe was covered in forests, and the contemporary treeplanters, who are consumed with making money, sex, boozing, and getting through the work season. Alma's later life in the shack is a strange amalgam of the two, half-dream, half-fable, as if she had stepped out of her life and into a folk tale. The author writes extremely well, and is especially good with smells: "the reek of people coming out of the woods, of soil drying, of dry urine and shit and pesticide and bug-dope, sweat, spit and soap." Her description of the spindly "anorexic forest" of the north is haunting, and, though the plot is as thin as those northern woods, her characters muscle themselves onto the page. --Mark Frutkin
"Brilliantly, this writer illustrates the need for an examined life. Analysis. Accountability. A responsibility that we have to the world around us, to each other, the earth beneath our feet . . . She manages, and often, to knock me off my feet in one sentence flat . . . Unconventional, dense, provocative prose." — Globe and Mail
"Sections of The Nettle Spinner
are visceral and nasty and positively hum . . . Immensely satisfying, both as an elaboration of the themes Kuitenbrouwer took up in Way Up
, her earlier collection of short stories, and as a contribution to the tradition of sexy Canadian fiction written by women." — Winnipeg Free Press