Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Great Mischief

by Alistair Macleod

Whenever I travel to a new place I like to read some literature set in that location. There are not many books set in Cape Breton Nova Scotia but this one was by a well respected author so I thought I would give it a try. It is the story of the Mac Donald clan that came to Cape Breton from Scotland two hundred years. It is told by one of the Mac Donald descendants who grew up in Cape Breton but as an adult now lives in Ontario. As he interacts with his siblings in the present he reminisces about growing up in Cape Breton and the family stories passed down through the generations.

Parts of the book are beautifully written. Here is a passage about his experience working in a mine with his brothers.
It was always a surprise to come to the surface and to be reacquainted with the changes of weather and of time. Sometimes it would be four in the morning and the night would be giving way to dawn, and the stars would appear to be going out like quietly snuffed candles as the sky began to redden with the promise of the sun. Sometimes the moon would gleam whitely above us and my brothers would say, “Chointhe, lochran aigh nam bochd,”, “Look, the lamp of the poor.”
I cannot say that I enjoyed it though. While I appreciate the craftsmanship and I think that it told a very interesting story it was simply too bleak and depressing for me and I had to force myself to finish it. And I am not the type of person that needs books with happy endings. I usually tend toward dark and disturbing stories. My issue with this was simply that the exact same story could have been told with the exact same characters and plot points without losing the tragedy of the whole thing while offering at least some small glimmer of hope. There was one particular episode from the time the narrator’s childhood which is particularly tragic and heart wrenching that is repeated over and over again in the book. I lost count after the sixth retelling of this particular story and would just cringe when it came around yet again. I felt that I was being beaten over the head. I get it, it is a tragic story, a story that keeps repeating itself throughout the Mac Donald clan and the author doesn’t want to sugar coat it. But I don’t believe that this tale is more “true” by virtue of leaving out any hope.

On Amazon it has a four star rating based upon 69 reviews and one reviewer even said he found it “incredibly life - affirming” . That is the great thing about fiction, different people will get different things out of it. To me the despair came through most strongly but you might find something entirely different.

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