Just Staying

Share this

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

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor living in Buckinghamshire. His recent books include The Whartons of Winchendon, a short study of one of the strangest families in English history, featuring incest, treason, fairies, diving and the self-proclaimed Solar King of the World.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

reading mode