No Great Mischief

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

What did it win?

Trillium Book Award 1999, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 1999

What’s it all about?

An orthodontist meditates on his family’s history.

Was it really any good?

Certainly if you like MacLeod you’ll think so. I say this because it is very much the same sort of stuff we find in the short stories (which were in themselves ample evidence that MacLeod is a writer with only one string to his bow).

Fans of the short fiction, however, may still be disappointed. For starters, the novel lacks dramatic tension. MacLeod’s short stories all deal with the conflict felt by natives of Cape Breton who are either leaving home or returning in some way changed. In No Great Mischief this conflict is not in play, since it is taken for granted that Alexander MacDonald will be going off to become an orthodontist. No one ever reproaches him for making this decision, nor is he profoundly troubled by it.

The other big difference between No Great Mischief and the short fiction is that the sense of a vanishing way of life is not as developed. “Progress,” that inhuman, modernizing force that threatens all the good old Cape Breton virtues and traditions, is not as imminent an evil. Modernism is now just the “modernistic” house in Calgary where Alexander’s sister lives. The MacDonald family is a force of nature, and will endure. The death of Calum MacDonald is truly no great mischief since it’s obvious that the clann Chalum Ruaidh will just keep rolling along.

But even so, how can you not like this book? MacLeod’s great strength is his ability to write with a kind of decorous and old-fashioned honesty that shouts defiance at our hard-hearted and cynical age (not to mention our hard-hearted and cynical reviewers). It’s tough to think of another contemporary author doing this material without collapsing into parody. Those dogs that “care too much and try too hard,” and those Gaels always ready to burst into song at the drop of a hat are ludicrous creations, yet No Great Mischief is a novel entirely without irony. The great curse of Canadian writing is its sentimentality, but MacLeod’s sentimentality is so ingrained, so unapologetic, so obvious and so essential to his writing that you couldn’t imagine him without it:

Sometimes when he would tell me those stories his eyes would fill with tears. People used to say he was sentimental, but it was because he cared. He felt everything deeply.

I admire that.

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