So where were you when you heard that Alistair MacLeod had died? You’ve no idea? I thought not. The passing of Canada’s greatest writer in April 2014 made few shockwaves in Britain, where his work remains almost unknown. To his admirers, and I am enthusiastically one, this is both a scandal and a puzzle. For most of us, the books were a very personal discovery, and our feelings about them are commensurately possessive. Don’t say it too loud, but it’s absolutely true: this reticent, unfashionable, determinedly unprolific writer was one of the great masters of prose fiction in our time.
In forty years MacLeod produced just sixteen short stories, later collected in Island (2002), and one not very long novel, the extraordinary No Great Mischief (1999). Notoriously, he wrote at glacial speed, toiling over each sentence by hand until its shape and heft and tune were exactly so. You could read the life’s work in a weekend, but you mustn’t: the stories demand to be savoured slowly, the way they were written. A MacLeod sentence is a tactile thing, with the hard but polished feel of a pebble in the hand. Yet the prose is not ‘writerly’ in any tiresome way: ‘I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,’ MacLeod once said, and his work retains a strong sense of the speaking or even singing voice – of folk tales or Gaelic balladry.
If the work is small in bulk, it is fiercely precise in its focus. Nearly all of it is set on Cape Breton, the large island at the tip of Nova Scotia where MacLeod grew up and to which he returned every summer. Like most Cape Bretoners, he was descended from Highland Scots who arrived during the Clearances, bringing a Gaelic-speaking culture that continues today. Traditionally, the islanders worked as miners, loggers, small farmers and inshore fishermen, and MacLeod tried all four occupations before lighting on a career in academia. His characters tend to be torn between leaving
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