Alexander MacLeod and his father, celebrated canlit icon Alistair MacLeod are two writers I’ve always felt I should read more of – this is partly due to the wonderful book reviews of Alistair’s writing that can be found on the fabulous book blogs Consumed by Ink and Buried in Print, two book reviewers I follow quite religiously. But since Alistair died in 2014 I’ve set my sights on his son instead, so I was delighted to find a copy of his latest release Animal Person on my doorstep a few weeks ago. It’s a book of short stories, which is a talent that runs in the family because each and every story in this collection is breathtaking. I loved every single piece, each different from the last, and it’s one of those books I can pass to someone else who appreciates good writing and know they will love it too. This is writing that doesn’t rely on plotting, humour, or a unique premise to capture the attention – it’s simply good writing that stands on its own.
There are 8 stories that make up this collection, each about the same length, the first being “Lagomorph” which is about a man living with his family’s pet rabbit after his kids and wife have moved away, reflecting on their time as a family and how this rabbit entered and circled around their lives. It ends somewhat surprisingly, but it’s a beautiful meditation on parenthood, a life lived, and the fear of what comes next. My favourite is “Once Removed”, a hilarious look at visiting a distant aunt which results in tying a 4-month-old baby to a chair with scarves and feeding her mashed potatoes. “The Ninth Concession” could easily spin into a novel – a haunting look at one boy’s childhood in a rural area of southern Ontario, and the secrets that the rich farm next door keeps, along with the steady migrant works it employs. Each story has its own atmosphere and tone, although many of them easily toe the line between light and darkness in the sense that one small slip could easily push these narratives into a work of suspense or horror. Each is the perfect length, and to be quite honest, I had hoped for one or two more stories because I was enjoying myself so much while reading them.
Reading a collection of short stories all the way through takes a special kind of effort; at the beginning of each story the reader is placed in a state of disorientation, forced to determine who the characters are, where they are located, what time in history it’s taking place. MacLeod builds on this disorientation in “The Entertainer”, which includes bars of music dropped throughout the paragraphs, and a changing first person narration. It took me a few pages to understand who the first narrator was in relation to the other speakers who continue on with their first-person narration as the story continues. Despite this initial confusion, I immediately slip into a sense of comfort once I’ve figured it out, eager to continue on with the story and fully immerse myself in this new world of piano recitals and awkwardness. That story in particular, along with the aforementioned “Once Removed” both deal with the challenges of aging in a society that tolerates seniors rather than celebrates them. Even better is the senior characters within each story are vastly different yet still realistic and empathetically drawn.
“What Exactly Do You Think You’re Looking At?” is one of the most curious of all the stories. Tt details the strange habits of a person who steals people’s suitcases from airports, sifts through them, wears the clothes, uses the toothbrush, etc. then puts it all back together and returns it. It’s obviously a creepy story, but also strangely exhilarating, because it contains all these musings about humans and our habits that I found quite insightful:
“A person can negotiate with cold, work out a better relationship, add more to the mix if you need to, pull on another layer. This is why I always wear these gloves when I am here, thin gloves even in the heat. I like to work that extra membrane. I like to have more of a say about the way I touch things and the way things touch me.-What exactly do you think you’re looking at?, Animal Person, p. 71 of ARC
Each story left an imprint on me as a reader. They conjured up a range of emotions that I was more than happy to go through because I knew I was in good authorial hands; nothing ended too early or too late, the right questions were left unanswered, and there was a perfect balance between differing tones. I highly recommend this one and I have no doubt it will show up on prize lists this Fall.