Monday, April 21, 2014

Book review: No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod

Having just gotten word about the death yesterday of acclaimed Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, I thought I'd use this space today to celebrate his work. Although he had written many short stories, No Great Mischief was his only novel, and it was a significant one, winning the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. I'd highly recommend it if you haven't already read it. Below is the review I wrote back when it was first published.  For more information on MacLeod and his life, see the obituaries in CTV News and Halifax's Chronicle-Herald.

On Cape Breton Island, the Gaelic stronghold of Nova Scotia — a land of windswept crags and rocky shores — memories of years long past still reside in the hearts and minds of the people. Over two hundred years after Culloden, families of Scots descent still reminisce about the brave exploits of their handsome Bonnie Prince Charlie, and still lament the fact that the French did not come to his aid.

In 1779, Calum MacDonald — called Calum Ruadh for his red hair — left the Scottish Highlands with his family, bound for a better life in Nova Scotia. At the end of the twentieth century, his descendant Alexander MacDonald works as an orthodontist in Ontario, though his heart has never left his homeland of Cape Breton. While on a visit to his alcoholic eldest brother, living in squalor in a Toronto apartment, his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island. His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels. In a lesser writer’s hands, this might cause one to lose perspective, but here the reader’s attention is held throughout.

Alexander’s tale twines through various happenings of importance: the early deaths of his parents; the unusual friendship of his two grandfathers, one relaxed and jovial, the other careful and contained; and the wild, violent summer spent with his three elder brothers as miners deep within the Canadian Shield. Wherever he or his siblings venture, they’re identified both to themselves and to outsiders as members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the “clan of the red Calum.” In this large extended family where relationships matter more than names, distant relatives in Scotland greet their Canadian kin with open arms, grandparents use Gaelic to recount tales of the old country, and even the family dogs are loyal unto death.

Lyrical and moving, No Great Mischief may not be historical fiction in its usual definition, but one would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a stronger sense of history. A Canadian bestseller of local interest yet truly international appeal, this novel is a highly recommended exploration of the pain of exile, the strength of family, and the inescapable nature of the past.

No Great Mischief was published by WW Norton in 2000 and has been reprinted many times since then.  The photo above comes from the 2011 edition.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review in August 2000.

12 comments:

  1. I'd like to see this as a film, with score by Natalie McMaster or Ashley McIsaac. Cape Breton has a marvelous folk music tradition.

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    1. This one would be challenging to do as a film, with its complex multi-time structure, but I'd love to see someone try! :) Cape Breton is a gorgeous place, and both musicians you mentioned would do a great job with the score.

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    2. It should be done not as a movie but as mini-series, perhaps. And juggling multiple timelines could be a delicious challenge for the directors.

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    3. Now you're talking. The novel's such a classic in Atlantic Canada, especially, that I hope they go for it one day.

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  2. Oooh, this sounds marvelous -- adding to the TBR for sure. Thanks for mentioning this gem!

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    1. Always happy to help with TBR additions! This one's been out for so long that it's fallen off the radar - but it's worth seeing out.

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  3. No harm in liking things that are beyond the "usual definition."

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    1. Novels with parallel narratives are more popular today than they used to be, which is why I probably made that comment about "usual definition." Don't think I'd say the same thing if I was reviewing it now.

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  4. "his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island. His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels." This fascinates me. I must see how he does it!

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    1. This is making me want to reread the book! What I remember is that the structure was very carefully done, and very clever. I never lost my place.

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  5. So sad to hear he died - somehow the news passed me by when it happened. I love this novel and even gave a paper on it and some of his short stories once at a conference. Great review, Sarah.

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    1. Thanks, Ingibjörg, I appreciate your comment on the review. I'd always meant to go back and read some of his short stories. Just now I found his obit from the NY Times. He sounds like quite a character, and it's fortunate for readers that he did finally write the novel.

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