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No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod

No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod, is the “book by an author with your same initials” choice for my 2017 Reading Challenge.



No Great Mischief


This is a book which apparently won a lot of awards. Based on reviews, most people love this book. Maybe you will. Sadly, I am in the minority of reviewers who did not care for it at all and can't understand the gushing. The book took me nearly a month to get into, and I finally forced myself to finish it only because it was due back at the library and I'd already invested over a hundred pages in it.

I'm still not entirely sure what the plot was. I don't think there was one. However, we get to see a lot of family anecdotes about Scotch-Canadians and their yearning for the old land. I guess it was kind of interesting to see how someone from such a different place might live.

We follow Alexander MacDonald – one of three in this book, actually – as he jumps back and forth between real-time visits with his alcoholic brother, his youthful memories of growing up with his grandparents in Cape Breton, and occasional (also flashback) visits with his well-to-do sister. The author hops between past and present tense to do this, and I didn't like that at all. I found the switches to present tense to be jarring. Granted, I'm not really a fan in the first place, but this gimmick missed the mark for me.

He's also extremely repetitive. This very rarely this works to hammer something home, but mostly it's just dull. He tells us multiple times and in multiple ways how well-to-do his sister is (as well as himself, though that's not quite so obviously harped on). He tells us stories from his childhood, then his relatives retell the same stories later, then his brother brings them up in 'real time'... just very, very repetitive. Which, imo, doesn't really work well in a story that has no drive forward.

Some of the anecdotes which we meander through were okay. I did get pulled in around the middle of the book, though it didn't last as long as I hoped. The characters often seem more like caricatures. Especially when anyone visits Scotland and the locals all immediately recognize their clan because of the red or black hair (yeah, because that's not common in Scotland at all) and start waxing on about Bonnie Prince Charlie. I have a big extended family, and even if the overarching Mac-whatevers are very similar, a clan indeed, you always see individuality in the people. These were just cardboard MacDonalds. One grandpa was a drinker and funny and one was sober and somber, and that's about as deep as characterization got here. The (two) women were even worse. Grandma's full of clichés, which writers are warned to steer clear of (another obvious gimmick here, imo), and sister pats her hair or looks out her Very Expensive Windows while being mostly defined by her husband or house – and is only around to repeat family stories we've already heard.

Some phrases were pretty good. I can see some good skill when looking at the trees but not the overall forest. It just didn't work for me at all. I have no clue how it won the awards and has the following it has. You can sum up the entire book by saying: If only the boats had come from France & Always look after your blood. I literally opened the book to a random page, aiming to get the exact quote (not "thicker than water", but she was so full of clichés that that's where my brain went), and found it on the page I opened to. Not serendipitous; repetitive.

Guess I'm just not the right market.

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