|"Once there was a family with a Highland name who lived beside the sea." So begins "As Birds Bring Forth the Sun," a 1985 entry from Island. The story continues, "And the man had a dog of which he was very fond." And there you have the basic elements of an Alistair MacLeod story: dog, family, and sea. The author--whose 2000 novel No Great Mischief won him a measure of long-overdue acclaim--shuffles these elements into a surprisingly infinite variety of configurations, always with the same precise, confident, quiet language.|
His big theme is the abandonment of the rural. Though his characters live in the fishing communities of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the seaside isn't a place where they dwell contentedly. In half the stories, young men and boys feel a pull toward academe and the center of the country. In the other half, academically successful middle-aged men return to the wild eastern coast of Canada to try to reclaim the life they left behind. Both dilemmas are impossible to resolve--no one can be both a city mouse and a country mouse--and MacLeod wisely doesn't offer easy solutions.
What makes the writing sing, though, is the specificity of his descriptions of rural life. He tells you exactly how things work: "The sheep move in and out of their lean-to shelter, restlessly stamping their feet or huddling together in tightly packed groups. A conspiracy of wool against the cold." The people here are ultimately defined by the physical world, and MacLeod has a farmer's visceral feel for geography. As he writes in "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood": "Even farther out, somewhere beyond Cape Spear lies Dublin and the Irish coast; far away but still the nearest land, and closer now than is Toronto or Detroit, to say nothing of North America's more western cities; seeming almost hazily visible now in imagination's mist." This is regional fiction in the best sense: it belongs to one perfectly evoked place. --Claire Dederer