The harsh beauty of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island forms the backdrop for this vivid if somewhat diffuse chronicle of rootlessness and sexual rivalry, the first novel from the author of the critically praised story collection Eyestone (1988).
Nineteen-year-old Innis Corbett was born in Cape Breton but raised in the States (Watertown, Massachusetts, near Boston), where his father’s accidental death and his mother’s promiscuity and neglect of him have left Innis on his own to find trouble—in the form of repeated car thefts, for which he’s been deported and is spending a year living with his uncle Starr, a quick-tempered TV repairman. Back in “his” country, Innis is caught cutting down a tree on a neighbor’s property, where he furtively grows the marijuana cash crop he hopes will purchase his freedom from Starr, with whom he maintains a tense détente that’s pushed past the breaking point when the 40-ish woman his uncle brings home, former “air hostess” Claire Watson, arouses Innis’s frustrated sexuality, propelling him to further acts of theft and violence. This is a thickly detailed, convincingly claustrophobic narrative, enlivened by precise, ominous descriptions of the Corbetts’ wintry environment (“The storms had driven in a huge tree trunk, its amputated roots already sea-worn, topped with claws of ice,” etc.) and dramatically effective crisp, pungent dialogue. But it’s so rigorously downbeat that it’s hard to identify with any of MacDonald’s tightly wound principal characters. Furthermore, the heavy burden of background action (which seems to have been crucially formative for Innis) is doled out in arbitrary brief flashbacks lacking in either cumulative force or variety. One wonders if Innis was conceived as another Aeneas, a wanderer without a country, mourning his dead father—but if so, the comparisons aren’t fully explored.
Despite many striking moments and incidental virtues, this feels both underimagined and underdeveloped: the work of a first-rate storyteller who isn’t yet a novelist.