Note: This novel was WINNER of the IMPAC Dublin Award, the biggest literary award in the world, in 2001.
Alexander MacDonald, the narrator of this warm and ennobling family saga, comments to his brother that “Talking about history is not like living it…Some people have more choice than others.” And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of this tender generational novel. The MacDonalds are, in many ways, an “ordinary” family on Cape Breton in northeast Canada, but MacLeod creates a history for them so alive that the reader experiences it, too, feeling their sorrow and joy, admiring their pluck and independence, and celebrating their loyalty and bravery as they make the hard choices their lives require. They become heroes to us not because they have performed unusual feats but because they have achieved nobility within the collective memory of their own family.
Alexander MacDonald, the speaker, no longer lives on Cape Breton. An orthodontist, he travels weekly to Toronto to visit his alcoholic brother Calum, named for the family patriarch who came to the island in 1779 from Scotland. As he travels back and forth and reminisces, sometimes in Gaelic, with his much less fortunate brother, many generations of MacDonalds come to life, and we see how these forbears have shaped the two brothers and influenced their different, but shared, destinies.
MacLeod is very lyrical, and like a musician, he repeats certain themes. Gaelic phrases echo throughout, almost like a refrain. First names continue in different generations to remind the reader of historical resemblances and differences. And always, in every generation, MacLeod celebrates the dominance of the original Calum MacDonald and of Cape Breton in shaping their lives.
MacLeod never stoops to sentimentality, however. His main characters are all macho males living macho lives, and he includes no romantic love story to soften the harshness of life. Still, he has created one of the warmest, most loving, and enduring family stories anyone will ever find. The book pulses with heart, an unforgettable novel by a writer who is so precise in his structure and word choice that in his entire career he has produced only this one novel and fourteen perfect short stories published in two extraordinary collections. Reading MacLeod is a great, rewarding pleasure for anyone interested in beautiful prose and careful execution. (At the top of my All-Time Favorites List.)
Notes: The author’s photo is from http://weblog.johnwmacdonald.com
The photo of Meat Cove is from http://www.advrider.com Meat Cove is the farthest point north on Cape Breton, a dramatic, stunning coastline which ends with a tiny café where visitors can have a bite to eat and enjoy the company and the views – a very special place and, for me, a treasured memory shared with friends.