Reviewed by Chris Margeson
The stories that make up Alexander MacLeod’s new collection, Animal Person, were published between 2012 and 2019. To read them now, though, newly assembled in 2022, they hit with an immediacy that feels of our time. No small feat, considering how distant 2019 sometimes feels from our current world. Throughout the eight stories, MacLeod navigates the ruptures and connections of our modern lives, many of which have only become clearer during these past few tumultuous years: the meaning of home, family bonds, class differences between neighbours. In our increasingly fragmented and migratory 21st century lives, tradition often butts up against our lived reality. The gap formed between the two is space that Alexander MacLeod’s characters often find themselves exploring.
Animal Person begins with the O. Henry Award-winning story “Lagomorph,” one of the most compelling openers in any collection I’ve read in a long time. It’s a peculiar story, essentially about the dissolution of a marriage and subsequent rebuilding of a life alone but told through a chronicling of the divorcee narrator’s relationship with his family’s pet rabbit, Gunther. In MacLeod’s hands, this innocuous old rabbit—its strange, silent presence in the narrator’s new life—becomes a mirror that reflects the strangeness with which our lives can become alien to ourselves, especially in moments of transition or change. It’s a near-perfect story, and a perfect set-up for the rest of the collection that follows.
Exploring the strange, surreal currents of emotion and energy that run just below the surface of our mundane and domestic dramas remains a central theme in Animal Person, but the stories themselves stay fresh and varied throughout. MacLeod’s stories guide the reader from the bunny-centric domestic drama of “Lagomorph” to a children’s musical showcase in a long-term care facility; from a run-in with a notorious murderer at a Halifax motel to some Alice Munro-style Southern Ontario Gothic in “The Ninth Concession.” Halfway through the collection there’s a story, “Everything Underneath,” in which two sisters go snorkelling together to observe the alien world of the ocean floor, and this feels like it could double as an extended metaphor for Alexander MacLeod’s M.O. as a storyteller: there’s more to see, and infinitely stranger stuff going on, if you take the time to dwell below the surface for a while.
To see the short story form worked so masterfully is impressive, but maybe not so surprising given Alexander MacLeod’s literary pedigree. Alistair MacLeod, Alexander’s father, was himself a master of the short story and remains a literary titan in Atlantic Canada. This is not to say that there’s any imitative work going on in Animal Person, but if there’s one thing that feels like it ties both MacLeods’ stories together, it’s a deep sense of place. That place being, specifically, the Maritimes – more specifically, Cape Breton Island.
Regional books sometimes run the risk of being alienating to folks who aren’t familiar with that region, but in Animal Person’s stories it’s often the narrators themselves who feel a sense of alienation from their roots or their childhoods in Nova Scotia. Almost every story conjures Cape Breton, or the Maritimes at large, in some way, but often as a kind of absence and a break in the characters’ lives. They’ve moved around, lived in a couple of different cities and provinces, but they feel that absence of home as a constant presence. It’s something I think a lot of readers in 2022, especially those who have been out on their own for a decade or two, will be able to relate to.
That’s the serious side of the Maritime connection, at least. This dynamic also plays out in a lot of fun scenes with quirky old Cape Breton aunts and uncles, uncomfortable family reunions, and a good display of just how different life can be on the Atlantic fringes of the country.
This is, in general, something that Alexander MacLeod does well in this collection. There’s a gravity and seriousness to the themes at play, but they are also genuinely fun reads. Even in their most gravely serious moments, a dark and absurd sense of humour cuts through these stories: a woman finds herself embroiled in a plot to steal a chandelier from her husband’s aunt’s neighbour at an old age home, an Acadian man selling a rabbit insists – passionately – that the new owner not “eat the guy” (“rabbits are right there, you know, right on that line”). It makes for fun reading, and often means that the emotional high points hit with extra oomph when they do.
There is a moment in the first story in the collection, in which the narrator looks down on a dramatic scene unfolding between himself and his pet rabbit and thinks: “The things it had done and the things I had done. I did not know what any of them mean.” There are moments in our lives that build new things up and moments that break old things down, and we’re rarely lucky enough to see them for what they are at the time. MacLeod’s collection, in some ways, catalogues such moments, the beginnings of new chapters and the ends of old ones. In his stories, as in life, these moments can be sad, they can be comical (usually they are a little of each) but, often, we don’t know how to feel about them. Even so, love them or hate them, moments of change are always interesting – and rarely more so than when told by a storyteller as talented as MacLeod.
Animal Person is published by McLelland & Stewart.