Although ‘Island’ is clearly fiction, I prefer to imagine this collection of stories as the portrait of a community and its history and traditions, as if Alastair MacLeod were in reality a social geographer in the mode of Henry Glassie and had collected these stories from the people of his community and then retold them in his own words. And I say ‘his’ community not only because I know he grew up on Cape Breton Island but also because of the love of the people, the animals, the land and the sea that is woven into every sentence, many of which I read again and again, revelling in the searing truth and beauty of the images.
This collection is composed chronologically of stories written between 1968 and 1999, which makes it very interesting to the reader who is new to MacLeod because we see the evolution in his writing and thinking. The early stories tend to be classic and tightly constructed while the later ones are more expansive, containing stories within stories, but are even more powerful in spite of that looseness of structure. I began to have real difficulty leaving the characters of each story behind from ‘Rankin’s Point’ onwards but at the same time the common landscape of the collection allows you to stay in the atmosphere of the previous tale even as you move on to the next. There is also a more meditative strain in the later stories as MacLeod begins to reflect on the passing of a way of life that he respects so much. He also focuses more on the Scottish origins of his characters and on Scots Gaelic and Scottish legends in the later stories, as if, being older, he is more preoccupied with the past.
The characters are sometimes isolated farmers, sometimes fishermen, sometimes miners, sometimes all three and the world of the stories is a masculine one of sons, fathers and grandfathers, as well as of their beloved dogs and horses. This is a world too of strong, physical work so women are usually in the background, the majority of the relationships described being between fathers, sons and grandsons. However, there are some fine portraits of women too, women who are feared, venerated, or simply loved.
As I was reading, I was reminded of the writing of John McGahern who also wrote beautifully about his own place and then I remembered where I had heard of MacLeod for the first time; in McGahern's Essays which include some of his book reviews. He didn't do many reviews but MacLeod was among them and he gave him the highest praise.
This collection will have a prime place on my bookshelves.