Island: The Collected Stories
 by Alistair MacLeod

2011 (originally published 2000)

" 'This guy says, I don’t know if it’s true, that there’s this farm outside of Montreal that’s connected to a lab or something. Anyway, they’ve got all these mares there and they keep them bred all the time and they use their water for birth control pills.'
It seemed so preposterous that Archibald was not sure how to react. He scrutinized Carver’s scarred yet open face, looking for a hint, some kind of touch, but he could find nothing."

Reviewed by Sue Haigh

When I first discovered the short stories of Alistair MacLeod, way back in the early 90's, I knew I had found someone who could teach me how achieve what I needed to do in my own writing; he showed me how to create a powerful sense of place. Though not a prolific writer (much of his work was probably already out of print by that time, and did not enjoy a revival until the success of his début novel, No Great Mischief, in 1999), he took the wild landscape of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, as well as what lay under it and around it, and made it into more than a backdrop; it became an ever-changing character in its own right, the link which binds his stories together and underpins the life-stories and emotions of the proud and taciturn islanders, descendants of the eighteenth century Scottish Highlanders transported to Nova Scotia during the Sheep Clearances.

Island, first published in 2000, is a regrouping of two earlier anthologies, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories (1986) and The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976).

The authentic voice of this elegiac song of love, mourning and regret is shot through with the cadences of the Gaelic language still used by the tradition-bound families of the book's fishermen, farmers and miners whose livelihoods are gradually being eroded by the modern world. Gaelic songs are reproduced in some of the stories; indeed, in The Tuning of Perfection, the mournful pieces sung by the reclusive Archibald could well still be heard at gatherings on a Hebridean island today. At the same time, echoes of Chekov, Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence reverberate through stories such as The Boat and Winter Dog

A master of low-key beginnings and endings, MacLeod is no follower of literary fashion. I believe his success as a story-teller lies, at least in part, in his profound knowledge of (and love for) his subject, garnered during a lifetime of close observation of his fellow islanders, the moods of the sea and the weather and the beasts which are so much part of the landscape. Many of the stories are in the first person, (which I found confusing at times when I was new to MacLeod's work) but each "I" is a different voice. The landscape is the link. The stories unfold slowly and sensuously, producing dense, layered prose. Myth and legend are superimposed on historical facts. No detail is too small for MacLeod to use, but none is irrelevant, whether he is describing the caring, violent slaughter of cattle, carried out according to the phases of the moon, ("we would lay out the ceremonial clothes of death") in Second Spring or the hunt-fuelled sexuality, perfectly and subtly described, of the mackerel fisherman of the title story, Island.

Death, often violent, frequently unseen, whether by drowning (the fisherman father recalled in The Boat could not swim), in mining disasters, or in the jaws of mythical vicious dogs (As Birds Bring Forth the Sun) is never far away on Cape Breton. Only the mangled or fish-eaten bodies brought up the mine-shaft or washed up on the rocks tell of the ultimate moment.

MacLeod savours the vast isolation of Cape Breton, fixing it on the page with a sureness of touch. (I believe it could be for that reason alone that MacLeod claims never to have received a rejection slip, a fact which must make him unique amongst writers!) Images of the winter seas around the island are the backdrop to the story which probably stays in my mind more than any other, Winter Dog. Here, a young boy's near-fatal adventure will forever remain a secret between him and his dog. MacLeod's encyclopaedic knowledge, worthy of an Inuit, of the movements of snow and drift-ice, takes the reader deep into the boy's psyche and into that of his dog (dogs are a constant, important presence in the book).

The world of work on MacLeod's Cape Breton Island is an exclusively male one. The stories are about fathers and sons, rather than mothers and daughters. His women, usually tall and strong, reddish-haired and blue-eyed in the Celtic way, give birth to large families. Perfect in the household arts, with little time for reading or culture, they are the guardians of the traditions brought over from the old country and passed down through many generations. As they stand at their wood-stoves, they still hear the skirl of pipes rolling down through the mist in some Highland glen. But their children, educated, more sophisticated, find themselves squeezed between the magnet of gleaming distant cities and the desire to carry on family traditions. They are climbing out of the failing mines and the fishing boats, leaving the snooker halls, to reach out to the modern world, at the same time feeling drawn back to the island by family fate and tradition.

MacLeod has perfected the art of the subtle flashback - the "I" (always male) is often a child of the island returning to his roots, drawn back in adulthood by family illness or death. A small detail, such as the sight of a dog or a boat will trigger a series of powerful memories of past times, of past adventure, grief and loss.

The deep humanity of the book mirrors MacLeod's profound attachment to his adopted home (only his parents were actually born on the island). Lyrical and solemn (only one story, Second Spring, which describes a young boy's frustrated attempt to breed a calf from a prize-winning bull, made me laugh out loud), these are stories to be savoured slowly, rather than to be gulped quickly at a single sitting.

See the author read a story from this collection on YouTube

Sue Haigh is a writer, editor and reviewer. Her short fiction has been published by Women of Dundee and Books, Chistell Publishing, Sunpenny, Cadenza, Chapter One Promotions, Mslexia and others. She has also written a début novel, Missing Words, and a bilingual children’s book, Stories from a Cave. She lives in France.
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Born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1936, Alistair MacLeod moved to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, at the age of ten. Now a retired academic, he writes there in a cliff-top cabin overlooking the sea. His début novel, No Great Mischief, (1999) won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.