By Alistair MacLeod
Let’s begin with an observation that I hope won’t be too controversial or likely to be taken the wrong way: There is something terribly old-fashioned about Alistair MacLeod’s Island. This is in part because it is a book with a history – a collection of stories the earliest of which dates back to 1968. But it is also because of MacLeod’s writing itself and its single theme, which is one of the oldest and richest in all of literature.
It is, in short, the tale of the tribe. The Cape Breton MacLeod describes is that of a dying breed. The fishermen, coal miners, and farmers he writes about are the old order, speaking a strange language and sharing a unique history and culture. Their sense of the past and all that it stands for – honour, family, tradition, physical labour – is scarcely more than nostalgia now, swept away by the tides of modernity. The younger generation have left home to go to work in the city. European tourists are moving in to buy cottages on the coast. Their Gaelic songs are being mined by TV executives from Halifax in search of local colour features. (While not pastoral, MacLeod’s antipathy to the city is pretty sharp. There can be few other writers even in super-literary Nova Scotia who have painted Halifax – yes, Halifax! – as the modern Babylon.)
The action in the stories typically revolves around young people coming home to re-visit this dying world. The past, they have found, will not be laid to rest. Like the father’s coffin in “The Closing Down of Summer” it exists as a present threat, likely to burst free and attack them at any time. Not even alcohol (the drug of choice) can drown the ghosts of the fathers and brothers who have now become the spirits of place.
What saves Island from being sentimental is the same sort of attitude that William Carlos Williams took toward Paterson, the approach to art that says the local is the only universal. This isn’t to say there aren’t sentimental moments – the story “In the Fall” is an example of how positively maudlin MacLeod can be – but these are more than outweighed by passages like this:
But neither is it easy to know that your father was found on November twenty-eighth, ten miles to the north and wedged between two boulders at the base of the rock-strewn cliffs where he had been hurled and slammed so many many times. His hands were shredded ribbons, as were his feet which had lost their boots to the suction of the sea, and his shoulders came apart in our hands when we tried to move him from the rocks.
This is MacLeod at this best – a precise, striking and emotional use of language afloat on a rhythm that never skips a beat. It is also, less convincingly, the way his characters speak. The dialogue in Island is beautiful and cadenced, but not of this world. Take as another example the complaint of the mother in “The Return”:
“And what is the something you two became? A lawyer whom we never see and a doctor who committed suicide when he was twenty-seven. Lost to us the both of you. More lost than Andrew who is buried under tons of rock two miles beneath the sea and who never saw a college door.”
Sound familiar? This is the voice of Maurya keening for her sons in Synge’s Riders to the Sea. The artificial, dramatic nature of this expositive dialogue (and it goes on for a couple of pages) is unlike anything one finds in today’s writing. It seems to belong, if anywhere, to the Aran Islands of Synge’s stage, or some other poetic (that is, literary) place in the past.
At moments like these MacLeod comes across as such a self-conscious writer he might almost pass as naive. But the stories have about them a sort of awkward honesty that blunts criticism. While he can be obvious to the point of being downright crude – Agnes pricking herself with a knitting needle in the story “Island” to indicate her loss of virginity – most of the time MacLeod’s very simplicity and earnestness is a source of strength.
The stories in Island are wonderful creations. The sensibility they project is not new, but rather so divorced from our own time it has a freshness almost alien. Even more than his evocation of a vanished people and a disappearing way of life it haunts us with a sense of loss.
Review first published online October 22, 2000.