Friday 3 July 2009

'perhaps no story ever really stands alone'

Island: Collected Stories
by Alistair MacLeod

It would have been churlish of me not to have used some of my ill-gotten gains from KevinfromCanada's first contest to sample some Canadian fiction and when he mentioned Alistair MacLeod to me as someone who was under-appreciated outside his own country that was all the prompting I needed. In Kevin's own reviews of two of William Maxwell's early novels I commented that there was a similar quality to the writing of the two men, or perhaps a similarity in my response to them. Like slipping on a familiar and comfortable piece of clothing both men write with an assurance that helps you to relax immediately. There is very little time needed to tune in to their style as neither of them on the whole are stylists but write more as chroniclers of very specific parts of North America. For Maxwell it was the American Midwest and for MacLeod it is the Nova Scotian island of Cape Breton.

Cape Breton for those of you who (like me) aren't quite sure is here, where the red 'A' flag is:

The houses and their people...were the result of Ireland's discontent and Scotland's Highland Clearances and America's War of Independence. Impulsive, emotional Catholic Celts who could not bear to live in England and shrewd, determined Protestant Puritans who, in the years after 1776, could not bear to live without.

These are communities populated by men who labour, who make their livelihoods from logging, fishing or mining. The frequently cold environment is one which sometimes provides moments of genuine peril as in Winter Dog, a story begun by the simple sight of a dog at play which then proceeds with the pace of a thriller. But more often than not the climate is one which accentuates the isolation of the island, the frozen sea barring access to the mainland and thus serving to cut the population off from contact, influence and corruption by modernity. There is something almost Darwinian about the act of observation, stumbling upon an island where attitudes and outlook have been allowed to evolve into something unique. That isolation combined with the simple elegance of MacLeod's writing means that his characters are imbued with pride and honesty; not so much simple people as people who lead straightforward lives and know what is right (although there is some fun poked at one point at people who put any store in 'book learnin').

The quality that he shares with Maxwell is wisdom. Quite often the stories are told in retrospect, the benefit of hindsight providing the narrator with ability to show clearly what they learnt. In The Vastness Of The Dark a boy learns that he was conceived out of wedlock and his unique take on that revelation is only slightly dimmed by the last sentence here.

And I have imagined the back seats of the old cars I've seen in pictures, or the grassy hills behind now torn-down dance halls or the beaches of sad beside the sea. I like to think that somehow that it had been different for them at my conception and that there was joy instead of grim release. But I suppose we, all of us, like to think of ourselves as children of love rather than necessity.

Given the clear heritage and culture of the islanders it is no wonder that the stories seem to come very much from a storytelling tradition. This is a wisdom passed down through generations, sometimes taking on a mystical bent as in Vision in which one family believes itself to be blessed with the gift of foresight, a blessing which anyone familiar with the classics will know is far closer to a curse. At other times, especially when folk tradition comes face to face with the modern media in The Tuning Of Perfection, there are moments of genuine comedy.

A connection to the natural world is obvious and important. The mining specialists in The Closing Down Of Summer are almost like animals who migrate around the globe with the seasons, following the work that is a constant source of danger and mortality. In the first story, The Boat, a boy's first recollection is of his father, 'of being suddenly elevated and having my face pressed against the stubble of his cheek, and how it tasted of salt and of how he smelled of salt from his red-soled rubber boots to the shaggy whiteness of his hair.' Any island based writer worth their (ahem) salt had better be good at describing the sea and MacLeod doesn't disappoint finding fresh ways of describing the element that defines the island's satus.

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, boys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that is ripped and torn from its lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation - the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

It is when his stories remain enigmatic and subtle that they become something slightly more special. His first collection The Lost Salt Gift Of Blood was published in 1976 and its title story is a little gem. It seems to contain many of the elements which come to define MacLeod's writing in the rest of the stories in the collection: journey and return, myth, fate, life cycles, and the meeting of island life and the outside world. My hope is that by saying no more about it you will be forced to get out there and read it yourself. MacLeod is certainly a writer worth reading. His cleverest trick is to focus on such a particular place and group of people, such a small locale, and somehow manage to write short fiction of the epic variety. Generations of family history can be covered in just a few pages, centuries of cultural history evoked in just a few verses of a song, and the importance of human relationships in the face of hardship and mortality summed up in a single glance. In The Vision a man remembers pulling lobster traps from the sea as a boy and attempting to identify a single strand in the rope a few feet further on; as impossible a task as telling a single story which doesn't rely and depend upon others, and if 'no story ever really stands alone' then nor does an island.


Anonymous,  3 July 2009 at 16:37  

Glad you liked MacLeod, Will -- he is a low-risk recommendation to a serious reader. I think the comparisons with Maxwell are quite appropriate. Both authors find a genuine balance between capturing a sense of place and locating interesting characters in that place. Alas, having read this collection you only have his novel, No Great Mischief to go -- he has not published much.

I was also intrigued to see that John McGahern wrote the intro to the volume pictured in your review. John Self and kimbofo have convinced me that McGahern should be read and Amongst Women is next but one on the pile. I am taking this appearance here as a good omen.

William Rycroft 4 July 2009 at 08:16  

Yes I was intrigued by seeing McGahern's name on the cover too but I'm afraid his introduction isn't particularly illuminating. Having said that, at least it didn't give away vast sections of plot like James Wood's intro to a book I read recently. That's not an introduction, it's a blooming great spoiler.

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