My 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.