The sixteen exquisitely crafted stories in Island prove Alistair MacLeod to be a master. Quietly, precisely, he has created a body of work that is among the greatest to appear in English in the last fifty years.A book-besotted patriarch releases his only son from the obligations of the sea. A father provokes his young son to violence when he reluctantly sells the family horse. A passionate girl who grows up on a nearly deserted island turns into an ever-wistful woman when her one true love is felled by a logging accident. A dying young man listens to his grandmother play the old Gaelic songs on her ancient violin as they both fend off the inevitable. The events that propel MacLeod's stories convince us of the importance of tradition, the beauty of the landscape, and the necessity of memory.
Presented in chronological progression, as written by MacLeod, this collection creates a vivid picture of Cape Breton’s generations, occupations, landscapes and sea. The focus of narration moves from a youthful perspective at the beginning of the book to the ponderings of old age at the end. This may have been intentional or just the advancing age of the author as he wrote the stories. At any rate, it gives the book a cohesiveness and sense of unfolding wisdom.
While this book is of sadness, isolation, hidden emotions and hardship it is written with strength of spirit and pride of ancestry. MacLeod writes with an open honesty and aching beauty of the inner and outer landscapes of human emotions and nature’s unforgiving dominance in these northern islands. Love takes many shapes; sustains many relationships and lonely souls. Those who are sensitive to death and loss may find this book a challenge. Or, like myself, may discover memorable gems of rare beauty in MacLeod’s work.
This collection is both usefully and unfortunately organized chronically, with the dates of original publication for each story made prominent. That is useful because the reader instantly sees that even in MacLeod’s first published story, “The Boat”, he is already tremendously accomplished. But you also see that over the years his writing continues to evolve. The later stories, such as “Vision” or “Island”, are considerably more complex narratively. Yet they retain the immediacy of the “told” stories that typify MacLeod’s earlier efforts. It is slightly unfortunate, on the other hand, to have the chronology front and centre because without it I think a reader might be even more impressed at the quality of each and every story. There is hardly a sense in which this seems to be a collection of an author over the course of his career and not just a snapshot at a single remarkably productive point. But at some point you may well begin wondering what else was happening in the north american short story field during the latter third of the 20th century, and that might surprise you in comparison to what MacLeod was writing.
In some ways these stories partake of an older mode of story telling. Perhaps it is the “personal tale” aspect of so many of them, or the prominence of animals, especially dogs, or the concentration upon marriage, birth, and death. Certainly they come across as rooted in the land (or at times the sea). And that may mark them as particularly Canadian (though you might also catch a hint of Jack London in some). However, when you read them you will find yourself so tightly bound to the principal characters and what happens to them that you won’t really have room for such thoughts. Just as well, because the stories themselves are all you really need. Highly recommended.
MacLeod has been called the bard of Cape Breton, where he was raised and where each of the sixteen stories in this collection are set. He captures both the atmosphere of the landscape and the tone of the language perfectly. Some of the stories build slowly, and were it not for the perfection of the prose perhaps one might get restless, but it's deceptive, for so much is going on just beneath the surface, just at the edges of things -- much as it does in real life. The interior world of MacLeod's characters holds center stage -- their desires, fears, regrets, sorrows, their bafflement, excitement and grief. Like Flannery O'Connor and her small Southern town, MacLeod has found every great mystery and passion within the confines of poverty-stricken fishing villages and mining towns.
It is astonishing to me how timeless these stories are. They seem to exist utterly outside of contemporary life, and yet are undeniably relevant in every way that matters.
Not only are there invaluable lessons for emerging writers between these covers, there are lessons for anyone interested in the workings of the human heart.