No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

No Great MischiefMy first read for The Canadian Book Challenge is No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. This one  has sat unread on my Billy bookshelf for 3 years; the last time I checked, it muttered “But you had time to watch Snakes on a Plane” before curling its covers away from me. Now that I’ve finished it, I realize I should have read this sooner. Actually, I should have stolen an ARC and read it before the book hit the stores–it’s that good.

The story opens on a rather dismal note, with the protagonist Alexander MacDonald driving down to Toronto to meet his alcoholic brother. I initially braced myself for a duty-read–one of those where the writing is awfully good, but the subject matter so wearying to the spirit I need an antidotal Captain Underpants if life is ever to seem rosy again. But I unbraced myself very soon. Although this novel is shot through with tragedy (even more wrenching for being so precisely and understatedly articulated) No Great Mischief is curiously life-affirming. I think it’s because the burdens Alexander bears flow from the same source as his joys, namely, his love for his clan. The MacDonalds lead ordinary, hard-scrabble lives that are rendered special by the primacy of their loyalty to each other, which outweighs all other considerations. The reader cannot view events in isolation, but sees them as wrought by the workings of blood ties just as much as fate; sorrows and triumphs are first and foremost part of the weave of MacDonald family history. MacLeod has brought this clan alive for me; when I next see golden arches, I shall no longer make a sign to avert the evil eye but think about this novel instead.

One of the reasons I joined this challenge was to learn more about Canada–I moved here three and a half years ago, and for various reasons, haven’t travelled much around the country. This novel is my introduction to Nova Scotia, specifically Cape Breton. If I ever visit here, I shall look for the woods and whales and the lighthouses described in this novel, and see them through Alexander’s eyes. That’s how strong the sense of place is in No Great Mischief.  

I am so glad I read this book.

9 responses to “No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

  1. As I said to Jen when she reviewed it, MacLeod was almost miraculously able to capture what it means to be Canadian. The way he explored the way people stick together because of culture or blood and yet still interact with others, could just as easily apply to any Canadian. It’s a favourite of mine.

    “But you had time to watch Snakes on a Plane”–too funny.

  2. Great book review! Made me want to go out and get it actually, might have to stop by the library on the way home. Your “Snakes on a Plane” comment was hilarious too, made me laugh out loud at work (yes, I was surfing the net at work. Like to stay updated on the book challenge!).

  3. John: Now that’s a question I often mull over–what it means to be Canadian. I hadn’t thought of the novel in those terms, though, so you’ve given me a whole new angle to consider!

    Kimiko: Thanks! Hope you do pick up the book; it is really quite remarkable.

  4. Great review. It’s raining here in Cape Breton now. Come in the summer😉

  5. “All of us are better when we’re loved.” What a great ending to a fantastic book. You will find yourself recommending this book to everyone you meet. I know I have.

  6. Chris@Bookarama: Thanks! My to-be-visited list is topped by Cape Breton right now…

    Remi: I agree; a stand-out book. It’s a real shame Macleod isn’t better known outside Canada–so many people I’ve been recommending the book to have never heard of him.

  7. This book was absolutely awful, I am going to school and was forced to read it and myself as well as others thought this was thee worst literature I have ever read. I’m pretty well to read it has no conflict upset for when alexander has to abnadon his dream of being a orthadontist in order to help his family. seriously macleod shouldn’t be given a award but instead a angry audience of readers who read this book and feel they should be given the time it took to read this peice of crap back. by the way I am canadian and in no way or form did I feel this applied to me, family is important to me but this book is just stupid as a nova scotian as well I have to give this book 5 thumbs down 5 being the lowest you can get

  8. Tom: Being forced to read a book often predisposes us to dislike it–maybe that’s part of the reason why you didn’t warm to this book. Is there any work that you feel *truly* represents Nova Scotia–I’d be interested in following up on your recommendations.

  9. I have to agree with Tom. Although some may find it difficult to understand just what he is trying to say, I completly get it. Even though I was forced to read it, there is no way I would have even considered reading this book had it been recommended to me or had been the most appealing thing on the shelves at the time. This book puts such a stereotype on how Canadians, and especially Nova Scotians, live when really I cannot relate to any of the events in the book. As Tom said, family is certainly important but the way the MacDonalds’ relationship is portrayed is entirely abnormal. Despite what Alistair MacLeod persuades the readers to think, Nova Scotians are not all cultured obesessed, family oriented, behind-the-times, insest humans. I found no enjoyment in reading this book and had to struggle through each page. This book isn’t worth reading, and is far from worthy of an award and all the attention it has received.

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