Island: The Complete Stories

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9780393050356: Island: The Complete Stories

Sixteen spare, evocative masterworks: men and women acting out their own peculiar mortality against the unforgiving landscape of Cape Breton Island.

Until the recent publication of Alistair MacLeod's first novel, No Great Mischief, his reputation as one of Canada's most important writers rested entirely on the stories collected in this book, and on this basis he was included in the Modern Library's 200 greatest writers in English since 1950.

These stories are about death, family ties, and the pull of traditions transplanted from Scotland to a harsh New World. Reviewing MacLeod in the New York Times, Louise Erdrich wrote, "the young eventually realize that though they speak English, the old language [Gaelic] is internalized, that the sound and meaning of it rise to haunt them in the same way that the ancient mythologies and superstitions, spun through generations, exert an ineluctable hold."

Joyce Carol Oates gives us a precise image of the experience of reading these stories: "that sudden feeling of insecurity that comes to a traveler in unmapped country; a sense of immediacy, cinematic in its vividness."

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Review:

"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

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11 cds

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