No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

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No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: No Great Mischief is a novel which captures the essence of belonging and the need to be a part of one's history. This is the story of a small part of Clann Calum Ruadh, the people of Red Calum, emigrants to Canada. It sweeps from contemporary Toronto to evoke Cape Breton in the fifties and back to the clearances of Scottish history. MacLeod tells the tale with the dignity and stature of an ancient myth, holding up to our gaze what it means to be a part of a race, a family and a place.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 262 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099283928

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The ingredients of this tale, eviction and clearances, tragic death, alcoholism and despair of the displaced islander in the modern world sound like the recipe for cliché and melodrama. What MacLeod achieves is akin to classic myth, a tale in which the characters take on an almost monumental scale, where the elders are pillars of wisdom and strength in a world which flings misfortune at them. And yet in spite of their grandeur, these are believable and likeable folk with their weaknesses and foibles.

MacLeod weaves the narrative from present to past, through incidents recalled and revisited, through accounts that the central character has only heard of as a part of his family history. And behind all of them is the presence of the clan, of the family which cements and supports its members, while also setting them somewhat apart from their peers. For if there is a genuine hero in this it is the Clann Calum Ruadh, a touchstone for all that is solid and good in an uncertain world. But the family is firmly situated, for at least most of the childhood sections of the tale, in the powerful, ever changing wildness of Cape Breton. MacLeod evokes a strong sense of the island and its beauty, the closeness to simple pleasures and the natural world that were part of the period, the comparative poverty and the isolation of Cape Breton. Especially for the orphaned brothers, life was hard but also somehow noble in its determination and simplicity.

What is almost impossible to convey here is the strength of the writing, of the simple language which weaves again and again through the motifs of family and place. Whether he is creating moments of heart-wrenching loss, or noble fortitude, of great humour and magnificent beauty, of friendship and camaraderie that can turn in an instant to hatred and violence, MacLeod is a great writer almost always in calm and gentle control of his art, and of us. We are led to a sense of both sorrow and celebration for the life he portrays, and for the nobility of human hope in the face of change.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney evokes a similar atmosphere and creates something of the physicality of a the isolated place. A much more detailed historical account of some elements of the background to this story are to be found in The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852 by Ciaran O Murchadha. While this is set in Ireland, the context surrounding the Celtic diaspora emerge here very clearly. You might also appreciate The Free World by David Bezmozgis.

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