There are many beautiful moments in this limpid and haunting novel, the first full-length fiction from the Canadian author of two highly praised story collections: The Salt Gift of Blood (1998, not reviewed) and the paperback As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1996).
Those titles hint at the lyricism that is MacLeod's special gift—and that flowers impressively as the narrator, Toronto orthodontist Alexander MacDonald, looks wistfully back at the history of his family's emigration from Scotland in the 17th century, the life and legacy of his ancestor `Calum Ruadh` ('red-haired Calum`), Alexander's own upbringing by his doting paternal grandparents (after an accident on a treacherous ice floe takes the lives of his parents and an older brother), and his later relationships with his other surviving brothers, rough-hewn miners whose wayward energies propel them into alcoholism, and even murder. Alexander's vacillations between his sophisticated, comfortable present-day `world` and that of his stoical family are memorably captured in frequent shifts between present and past. These give the tale a marvelous variety and color; but redundant contrasts between the romantic-chaotic “then` and the drab `now` (frequently spelled out in lax conversations between Alexander and his twin sister) only make us impatient to return to the MacDonald clan's earlier days. The retold family stories are without exception gripping and quite moving, and are graced by stunning little gasps and leaps of felicitous phrasing (for example, at the funeral of a brother killed in a mine accident, Alexander muses `On the last day of his life he had been deeper in the earth than he now reposed in death`).
If all of MacLeod’s debut operated at this level of intuition and eloquence, the novel would be a masterpiece. As it stands, it confirms his reputation as one of Canada's most sensitive and stylish writers of fiction.