Tag-Archive for ◊ Scotland ◊

Author:
• Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She worked as a teacher, art administrator, as a journalist in Hong Kong and a Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent On Sunday newspaper. Presently she works as a full time novelist.

O’Farrell has written six novels thus far. Her first: After You’d Gone, published in 2000, won her the Betty Trask Award in 2001. For her third: The Distance Between Us, published in 2004, she won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. As for her fifth novel: The Hand That First Held Mine, published in 2010, she won the Costa Book Awards. O’Farrell’s latest novel: Instructions For A Heatwave, was published in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh with her novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their two children.

The Hand That First Held Mine is the story of two women, two destinies at two different epochs which are skilfully intertwined by the author. In the fifties, the rebellious, twenty-one-year graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, leaves home in Devon, England to experience a new life in central London, following a chance meeting with Innes Kent, the ebulliently charming thirty-four-year old art dealer, journalist, critic and self-confessed hedonist.

Under Innes Kent’s love and guidance, the young, impetuous Alexandra becomes the newly emancipated, Lexie and experiences for the first time working with Innes and other journalists in the offices of “Elsewhere”, the avant-garde magazine, as well as having an early taste of bohemian life in Soho. The clever, motivated, Lexie will quickly learn to appreciate art and to become a successful art critic and reporter.

Lexie is in love with Innes and decides to live with him in his apartment following his insistence. They are happy together, the only blemish being Innes’s estranged wife, the opportunist, Gloria and her submissive young daughter, Margot. Later in the story, after Kent’s untimely death, mother and daughter in unison take their revenge on Lexie and her son Theo. Margot will marry Felix, the journalist, who is Lexie’s colleague as well as occasional lover and Theo’s father.

Margot’s revenge continues after Lexie’s premature death, when little Theo comes to live with his father, Felix and herself. Margot – who was unable to have children – changes the child’s name from Theo to Ted and pretends to be his real mother. Margot and her mother Gloria keep the family’s secret tightly hidden from him. Felix, being a weak character accepts to go along with their wicked deceit. This will create Ted’s instability and torment as an adult, especially when he himself becomes a father.

A generation later, the thirty-one-year-old Elina Vilkuna, a Finnish painter, is recovering from a traumatic first childbirth by cesarian which nearly killed her and is about to destroy her relationship with her thirty-five-year old boyfriend – and father of her newly born Jonah – the film editor, Ted, who has been behaving oddly ever since.

Following her release from hospital with her newly born son, Jonah, Elina feels bewildered. She appears to have lost all memory of her dreadful delivery and seems to be living in a world of make believe. She makes the effort of trying to recall what happened and can remember in little strokes, like when her red scarf falls, it reminds her of the “jets of blood…in the scrubbed white of the room”.

As Elina is starting to emerge slowly from her amnesia and state of lethargy, Ted’s childhood is returning to him frequently now, in a blurred, handicapping form. He is having an awakening of his long-buried subconscious and is desperately looking for a guiding hand as a beacon to shed some light on all these inexplicably shadowy areas from his infancy which don’t correspond to the stories that “his mother”, Margot, told him.

Being predisposed to hypnotic periods, there are gaps in Ted’s memory. There are many old memories that contradict his other childhood and he is under the impression of having lived two childhoods. There are things he wants to remember but is unable to. He recalls some scenes from the past, a few puzzling flashbacks, like the first outlines on a canvas, he needs to complete the painting, which is difficult with lots of mysteries left unanswered by his parents.

Feeling guilty after his son’s deep depression and collapse, Felix reveals the whole secret story to Elina. He confesses his culpability and remorse and asks her to mediate between him and his son in order for his son to forgive him for concealing the truth from him for all these years.

The two stories run in alternating chapters between Lexie and Elina, without being connected at first, but towards the end the author, with a twist, thanks to her skilful magic wand, makes them converge into one without any exertion but with extreme intensity, compassion and sensitivity.

The Hand That First Held Mine is about the destructive power of the unspoken among members of the same family and the impact on people’s life due to the loss of a family member. The power of the past in re-modelling the present and transcending it, as well as the gratification and richness that parenthood brings to a mother and a father but also how the birth of a first child can change everything in one’s life. It is also about a mother’s deep love and sacrifices – Lexie and Elina are two ambitious career women who try to re-adapt after being jolted to so many responsibilities with their first new-born.

In one of her interviews, Maggie O’Farrell says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. She also says she couldn’t have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself. This exact feeling is described in the novel at the time Lexie knew she was drowning: “She didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she won’t experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

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Author:
• Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Alistair MacLeod was born in 1936 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. When Alistair MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and after high school, he studied at St. Francis Xavier University, graduating with BA and B.Ed. degrees. In 1961 he obtained an MA degree from the University of New Brunswick and in 1968 a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

He taught English for three years at Indiana University followed by a post at the University of Windsor, Ontario in 1969 as a professor of English and Creative Writing. Alistair MacLeod is a father of six children. He is retired and lives with his wife in Windsor, Ontario and they spend their summers on Cape Breton Island.

MacLeod has written a number of short stories: The lost Salt Gift of Blood, published in 1976 and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories in 1986. All his short stories have been collected into a single volume entitled Island: the Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod.

He has also written novels: No Great Mischief, his first novel, which took him thirteen years to write, was published in 1999 and received several awards and nominations. To Every Thing There is a Season was published in 2004 and Never Die Wondering in 2009. In 2008, Alistair MacLeod received the insignia as an officer of the Order of Canada for all his work.

No Great Mischief recounts the saga of the Scottish Highlanders, the clan MacDonald. In 1779, at the age of 55, Calum Ruadh (Calum the Red) MacDonald leaves his native Scotland with his large family – his wife, his twelve children and his dog – in an attempt to escape poverty and try his luck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada.

Two centuries later, in 1980 in Ontario, Alexander MacDonald, the narrator, is a successful orthodontist. At the age of three he was raised with his twin sister by their grandparents, while his three elder brothers were left to raise themselves following their parents’ drowning with 11 year old brother Colin, on a treacherous frozen sea in early spring. The novel starts with Alexander MacDonald going for his weekly visit to his broken-down, impoverished, alcoholic, elder brother, Calum, who lives in a run-down part of Toronto.

Alexander MacDonald is the great, great, great grand-child of Calum Ruadh MacDonald and one of the three cousins, called Alexander MacDonald in the novel. He evokes his clan’s stories, past and present, with its sad and tragic but also hopeful and joyful moments. The author mentions great battles like, Glencoe, Killiecrankie and Culloden in addition to other important events in Scottish history, as well as old traditional Highlanders’ Celtic songs. These stories have been passed on from generation to generation as part of their Scottish heritage, ensuring they are never forgotten but at the same time not forgetting that “living in the past is not living up to (one’s) potential”.

In the past the MacDonald clan faced hardship in their native land. Now exiled in Canada, the adversities continue, which make them resigned to their fate. They believe very strongly in keeping their identity and their dignity, while remaining loyal to their families, clans, countrymen and by following the old saying that “blood is thicker than water”. The credos they value are also: “We are all better when we’re loved” and Robert the Bruce’s quote from 1314: “My hope is constant in thee, clan Donald”. The MacDonald’s clan fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

The author underlines that even the MacDonald’s dogs and horses are faithful to them, like the members of the clan are loyal to each other. They kept the same family of dogs over the centuries. As Grandpa said after the death of their devoted dog: “ She was descended from the original Calum Ruadh dog… It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard” and Calum’s trustworthy horse, Christy, who “always kept her part of the bargain”.

The novel’s title refers to a letter written by General James Wolfe who describes in a disdainful way the Highlanders who were fighting under his command on the Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec city in 1759. He writes: “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall”. The General “was furious at the Highlanders because they wouldn’t retreat until they had carried their own wounded from the field” despite being ordered to leave them on the battle ground. They braved the enemy’s fire and disobeyed the order of the General because “they were probably fighting with their hearts rather than their heads”.

No Great Mischief is an elaborate touching story, emotionally strong, interspersed by ancient Celtic myths and anecdotes. The main themes are: the exile and the attachment that exists between the man and his own land, family blood ties, loyalty and dignity, going through several generations.

A poignant and tragic account at times, hilarious and light hearted at others. Beautifully written with well developed characters – grandpa and grandma being particularly endearing. It’s an authentic, heartfelt depiction of the belonging, allegiance and expectations of the exiled Scots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where MacLeod, himself was raised in Scottish surroundings with an oral rich tradition. The detailed description of the landscapes and especially the ocean, which is often described in various part of the story, enhances the account of this enticing novel.