Friday, September 19, 2014

An extraordinary novel by Alistair MacLeod

Recently I wrote about Alistair MacLeod's collected short stories, The Island. The collection was so good, I was reluctant to begin his novel, No Great Mischief. For one thing, he reportedly worked on it for years and I was afraid he might have worked it to death. For another thing, it is billed as a family saga and I am not much interested in family sagas. (My failure, but there it is.) Finally, what could MacLeod say about life on Cape Breton that he had not already said—and said with incredible power and grace—in the stories?

A lot.

No Great Mischief is an extraordinary novel. It is narrated by Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged Canadian orthodontist who grew up on Cape Breton. It begins with Alexander's visit to his much older, alcoholic brother Calum in a Toronto flop house. It ends with Alexander and Calum returning to Cape Breton. In between we meet the extended family; Alexander has a twin sister, three older brothers, grandparents, cousins, and friends. We hear the family stories, how the first Alexander MacDonald left Scotland, his first wife dead, his new wife dying on the voyage, arriving in the New World with his twelve children, one of whom had given birth along the way. We hear the family stories and we watch Alexander's parents and oldest brother die one March evening as they cross the ice to their home:

"Everyone could see their three dark forms and the smaller one of the dog outlined upon the whiteness over which they traveled. By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, 'There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving.'"

Alice Munro says, "You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever," and I can only agree. The Cape Breton winters, working in a uranium mine, migrant workers picking seasonal produce, the primitive existence of Alexander's older brothers who sleep with loaded rifles under their best and shoot at deer if the moon is right:

"And if the shot were true, they would race down the stairs, fastening their trousers as they ran, and gather their long-bladed knives from the waiting kitchen table. Out in the field, lit by the 'lamp of the poor,' they would cut the throat of the still-thrashing deer so that the blood would run free and not taint or ruin the valuable meat. They would work quickly and efficiently, disembowelling and skinning and cutting the carcass into quarters, their knives flashing in and out of the body's cavities, severing the grey ropes of the intestines and separating the still-shuddering redness of the heart. Later they would pack the meat within buckets and lower it into the well as a means of basic refrigeration...."

As The New York Times reported, No Great Mischief is a multigenerational story that intertwines the fates of Cape Breton's fishermen and miners with those of their Scottish forebears. It reflects MacLeod's abiding concern: the tensions that pervade a community caught between the pull of tradition and the pressure of assimilation. The narrator has forsaken his island roots for a life of bourgeois discontent and the novel is enriched by Gaelic speech, old Scottish songs, and evocations of the land and the sea. Unbelievably moving.

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