Available: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, and Island: Collected Stories
When Alistair MacLeod died on Easter morning this year three days after the death of the better-known Gabriel Garcia Marquez the event went relatively unremarked. I had loved his only (wonderful) novel No Great Mischief, and over the next couple of weeks I read my way through his small, beautiful body of short stories.
The son of a poverty-stricken family narrates the story of his mother making his father sell the old pit horse he worked with in the mines to a knacker. The knacker is a cruel man who the horse balks at going with, and the father must lead this beloved animal, who once waited for him untied through freezing night, into the van that will take him to his death. When the narrator’s brother, in distress, slaughters the chickens his mother has been raising for the Christmas market and flees, the parents find comfort in each other’s arms; the narrator goes in search of his brother.
Early in the story these lines appear:
At night, when we lie in our beds, we can hear the waves rolling in and smashing, rolling in and smashing, so relentless and regular that it is possible to count rhythmically between the thunder of each.
This is the structure of ‘In the Fall’ in miniature; its events are like these great unstoppable breakers rolling in to destroy.
We want, desperately, for the mother in the story to agree to keeping the horse, or for the father to refuse to sell it, or the knacker to reject it, or the children to set it free. There are beats in the story when the waves recede, when it seems that one after another of these things will be possible, any one of them representing a reprieve for the horse, the people who inhabit this world, and the reader.
Why it Sticks
Who knows why some stories stay with a reader more vividly and intensely than others? All I can say is that the resonance of the emotional and physical landscape of ‘In the Fall’ strikes like a series of blows. Recently, I found myself looking at it again, and with the same obliquely applied attention (it’s a painful read that I’ve only ever been able to manage in small sections). In part, I was trying to see how I could achieve something like its emotional pressure and heft in a scene I was writing.
MacLeod’s writing is remarkable for its grace and elegiac power, and rising from the sublime landscape of Canada’s storm ravaged Cape Breton Island it can hardly fail to be affecting. But so much of the strength of his writing lies in subtler places: the cumulative effects of his detail, his close observation and understanding of people – and animals. The horse in this story could be a sentimental device in the hands of a weaker writer, but here it’s given the same close attention as any other character.
Every part of this world is saturated in ambiguity: the sea and the mines that provide people’s livelihoods also kill them; people betray the trust of others; they find solace in those who hurt them most. The readers’ sympathies shift uneasily on the surface of the story, but MacLeod makes his characters (and his readers) face the truth. There are choices that people must face and face again; there will always be tension around the conflicting needs of poverty and the ties of affection. Here we are, we people, the writing seems to say, and these are the things we do and feel. Don’t look to me to save you.
The emotions of ‘In the Fall’ are uninflected by cynicism or irony or ennui, so that looked at in a particular light the story can appear almost old-fashioned. I prefer to think of it as timeless. Weeks after I put it aside images rise with the distress of first reading. And looking at it again late one night, the house dark all around filled with quiet and peaceful breathing I sobbed as if I were powerless and witnessing it again.
Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and attended schools in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program, Lucy is a writer, editor and creative writing teacher and has plied her trades both in Australia and in Cambodia, where she lived from 2003 to 2007.
She was awarded an Asialink Writer’s Residency to Cambodia (2011) to undertake research and to work on her first adult novel, then titled Some Times in Life. Lucy is the winner of the 2012 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, was awarded a 2013 Varuna Publisher Fellowship, and was the regional winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in Sleepers, Overland, Seizure, and Best Australian Stories 2013.
Lucy has signed with Picador for development of her second novel, Salt Creek.