Thursday, September 16, 2021

the last book I read

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod.

It's the 1970s (or possibly the early 1980s) and Alexander MacDonald is driving from his home in rural Ontario to Toronto to visit his older brother Calum. His brother Calum, it transpires, is living in some fairly dispiriting circumstances in a tiny apartment and nursing a ferocious alcohol habit. While Alexander makes a trip to the local liquor store to find something to relieve Calum's suffering he reflects on the events of their shared past, events which of course explain (at least partly) how things have ended up the way they have. Yes, that rumbling sound you hear is the approach of the express service from Framing Device Parkway to Flashback Central.

And so we arrive back in a time period that flits around between the 1950s and 1960s. The MacDonald family live in Cape Breton, right at the north-eastern tip of Nova Scotia. As well as Calum (the oldest) there are three other brothers before Alexander and his twin sister. Their parents run and maintain the lighthouse which sits just off the coast, and can be walked out to over the ice at certain times of year. The family (as the name suggests) are of Scottish descent and remain tightly-knit, with all three remaining grandparents also living no more than a stone's throw away and various other relations dotted about the local area, recognisable as part of the wider clan by their distinctive dark eyes and red hair. 

Anyway, as I'm sure I don't need to tell you, it's a hard life tending an intermittently ice-bound lighthouse in the wilds of northern Canada. And sure enough when Alexander is still a wee bairn of no more than three (and Calum is a teenager) both parents and one of their sons, Colin, have a mishap while traversing the ice in the dark, go through it into the icy and fast-moving waters and are never seen again. And so it falls to the grandparents to bring up the kids, which mainly means Alexander and his sister, the older boys soon being independent enough to get their own place, cars, jobs, etc.

At this point there are some further flashbacks, mainly describing the circumstances of the MacDonald family's arrival in Canada in 1779 in the wake of the Highland clearances, and further back to the Jacobite rising and the Battle of Culloden.

Alexander, as befits the youngest sibling with less pressure upon him to immediately go out and be the chief breadwinner, decides he'd like to be a dentist. But, before he can really get to grips with the business of pulling teeth, his family loyalty is tested. The older brothers are all doing lucrative work as miners at a uranium mine in Ontario (presumably meant to be Elliot Lake) and they're a man short; the reason they're a man short is that Alexander's cousin (also called Alexander MacDonald) has been messily killed by a falling mine bucket. So Alexander agrees to do a season or two at the mine drilling uranium instead of teeth.

The shifts at the mine are long and hard and the atmosphere at the mining camp intermittently tense. Another more distant clan member (yes, also Alexander MacDonald) arrives from the USA in an attempt to dodge the draft, and his arrival (and penchant for petty theft) accelerates the simmering tensions between the Scots and the French Canadian crew from neighbouring Quebec. When, during an enforced period of mining inactivity (the main winch is broken) these tensions boil over into a major rumble in the car park and Calum bashes the Quebecois ringleader fatally over the head with a wrench.

And so we see why Calum's present circumstances are as they are: a lengthy spell in prison, and on release finding it difficult to find work: a bit old for the manual work he used to specialise in, not much in the way of skills for anything else, plus that whole convicted murderer thing which is a bit of a turn-off for prospective employers. In the olden days he would have returned to the bosom of his extended family at the old family homestead and found a way of making himself useful, but times have changed and the grandparents are dead and the surviving siblings scattered across the continent doing their own thing.

The novel ends with Alexander returning to Toronto a few months after the original visit to collect Calum, now in a state of declining health, and deliver him to Cape Breton, from where we assume he is not intending to return. It's now winter and we are invited to speculate what form Calum's final acts will take. Will he set off across the ice to the old lighthouse and park himself there facing out to sea? 

This is Alistair MacLeod's only novel of a long and varied writing career (he was much more prolific as a writer of short stories) and adheres very much to the principle of writing about what you know - he was of Scottish heritage and grew up in Cape Breton. While the story being told here is obviously closely tied to Scottish clan loyalty it's also about family in a more general sense and how, while we still have families that we care about, certain things - the close family ties and the associated ties to particular geographical areas, houses being passed down from generation to generation, grandparents, parents and children plus the odd chicken all living under one roof - no longer really exist, at least in the supposedly sophisticated western world, anyway. And while this is liberating for some, it means that people like Calum are cast adrift to fend for themselves when once they might not have been. It's quite possible there's a calculation that could be done, if you only knew what numbers to put in, that would say that overall this is a good thing, but that doesn't help people like Calum much.

It's a fairly quick read and quite a nice bracing contrast to the absurdly baroque excesses of its predecessor, The Pope's Rhinoceros. This book is spare, stark and devoid of frills, but also features characters who are rooted in the real world enough for the reader to care about them. Unlike its predecessor which I'd had on my shelves for at least ten years and some previous books which had been sitting unread for several decades, I acquired this one only a couple of months ago in the little second-hand bookshop attached to the National Trust property at Killerton in Devon. 

No Great Mischief won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2000. Previous winners featured on this blog are Harvest (2015) and Remembering Babylon (1996). The previous novel featured on this blog, The Pope's Rhinoceros, was shortlisted in 1998, as were, in various other years, Paradise, The Corrections, Bel Canto, The Good Doctor, Havoc, In Its Third Year, Slow Man, No Country For Old Men, Winterwood, Home, The Lacuna and Brooklyn.

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