In 2010, I had the privilege of being one of the first readers to experience the wonder of Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short stories, “Light Lifting.” I read the book before its publication date and before it was nominated for almost every literary award it qualified for, including the Giller Prize. At the time, I compared MacLeod’s writing to that of Alice Munro and called the book “a jaw-dropping collection of short fiction that heralds the arrival of an important new talent.” I was not then, and am not now, alone in my enthusiasm.
Which made reading “Animal Person,” the new collection from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based MacLeod, a difficult experience. My initial surge of excitement was tempered by a cynical fear: It can’t be as good as “Light Lifting,” can it?
I didn’t need to worry: “Animal Person” is at least the equal of “Light Lifting”. That’s wonderful.
“Lagomorph,” the first story in the collection, for example, details David’s relationship with the pet rabbit he acquired with his then-wife, Sarah. These days, it’s just David and the Rabbit; the state of his relationship with Sarah may be more complicated in his mind than it actually is. “But I don’t know what terminology you could use to describe what we are now. “Amicably separated,” maybe, or “on hiatus,” but not divorced, not there yet. The story is small and intimate, but nevertheless manages to include several lifetimes of material, while revolving around a single incident (which is violent and horrifying and which I won’t detail here), and David’s desperate plea : “I need this bunny to find words, or anything that could replace words. I need him to talk, right now, and tell me exactly what’s going on. The story, domestic and relatable, becomes something transcendent.
“The Closing Date” uses a similar approach. A young family, having purchased their first home, plans a stay at the Bide-A-While Motel near their new home. “Once the Montreal apartment was empty, we were going to go to Halifax and stay at the motel for a few nights while we waited for the movers to arrive.” At the motel, they meet a plumber, who fixes the water in their room and befriends their young daughter. It’s only later that they realize how lucky they were: “The murderer, as everyone now knows, ran a plumbing business. His truck was already there, parked in front of room 107, when we first stopped. Room 107 was the site of two murders, one occurring when they shared a common wall with the killer.
At this level the story is genuinely chilling, but MacLeod’s strength lies in his ability to go beyond the encounter with the killer, the unknown peril, and carry the resonances of those events into the later life of family.
Structurally, the key to the strength of MacLeod’s stories is found in “Once Removed,” a one-time observation during a family dinner: “You think you’re in one situation, but it turns out to be something else.” This is true both for the characters in the stories and for the reader. Whether it’s the story of a piano recital (“The Entertainer”) or a man reminiscing about a childhood friendship (“The Ninth Concession”), a great traveler who steals another passenger’s luggage (“What exactly do you think you’re looking at?”) or a young woman’s funeral (“The Dead Want”), the apparent subject of the story shifts and veers, s opening in unexpected and often shocking directions, yet they remain rooted in a powerful and multifaceted view of humanity, an awareness of hidden depths and untold secrets.
The eight stories of “Animal Person” are misleading. They’re not experimental or stylistically daring; MacLeod writes with an almost familiar, easy-going, easy-to-read style. This simplicity masks just how complex these stories are, letting them explode in the mind and heart of the reader.
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