The heart is a lonely hunter

A 7-year-old girl named Morag is out hunting with her great-grandmother in the Canadian woods. “Crack!” goes the rifle. Down thuds a bird. Holding the now-dead bird upside down, droplets of blood spotting her boots, the great-grandmother, Eileen, comes and stands in front of Morag. “You needn’t look so melancholy,” she says. “This is nature.”

The scene is from Hunting Down Home (Milkweed Editions, 1999), a brave and haunting debut novel by Jean McNeil, a 31-year-old author born in Canada. Two points that precede the exchange are especially telling:

1. Right before Eileen takes the shot, Morag asks, “Are you going to shoot me?”

2. A dog (not Morag) had been Eileen’s first choice as a hunting companion.

The bravery of Hunting Down Home lies in the way McNeil manages to make scenes like this skirt shy of melodrama — or, even, too full a dose of melancholy. Instead, the desires and violences at work in Hunting Down Home are emotionally pitched to the landscape in which the tale is set — a remote island off the coast of Nova Scotia. A place of bitter cold, stinging insects and swiftly gliding snakes, yes; but also one coursing with brute vitality and moments of almost delirious beauty. After all, the novel as a whole seems to say, there’s no need to be melancholy — this is nature.

Hunting Down Home was published the same year as Monica Lewinsky’s My Story — which could almost be described as the world’s most famous intern’s own stab at a coming-of-age novel (in which not receiving an invitation to Tori Spelling’s birthday party seems reason enough for both melodrama and melancholy). Seen in this light, readers will appreciate the emotional subtleties at play in McNeil’s work all the more.

The action is seen through the eyes of young Morag, who lives on an isolated farm. Morag knows her mother only through slides sent (erratically) from Africa. The pictures show a slim, pretty, white woman among exotic jungle animals, standing under a strong Southern Hemisphere sun. Father, too, is a mysterious word to Morag; to her, it means a man glimpsed only once, driving down the highway, his wife and kids in the truck beside him.

It is Morag’s grandparents who raise her, and their troubled — and often violent — relationship defines her world.

Morag’s grandmother is protective, loving and bitter, by turns. The grandfather, Sandy, is charismatic and capricious as a god — one moment driving the car into a ditch to prove his point, the next, nursing a fox back to health. He’s a man blessed with music — able to play guitar, fiddle, accordion and harmonica — and his moods are as fitful as the sentimental Gaelic ballads he plays.

At a smoke-filled party, someone calls out to him, ‘You should have been Frank Sinatra.’

“‘Yeah, well,’ he dismissed the compliment. ‘I always said that Frank Sinatra is to singing what diarrhea is to s••t.'”

The exchange is a joking one, but beneath his jokes and charm Sandy’s anger brews — the anger of a man who, given a different roll of the dice, might have been something more than the poor farmer of an unforgiving acreage.

While each grandparent loves Morag, both are willing to use her as a pawn against the other. Even when the house seems peaceful, uneasiness hangs in the air, as in this dreamlike sequence: “My grandfather and I are waltzing together. I am standing on his toes. I have my arms around his waist and my head pushed hard into his stomach. … We are waltzing to a Joe Cormier tune. My grandmother comes into the living room from the bedroom. Grandma looks like a cross between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, her beauty slightly retrograde, slightly exhausted. She comes, walking quickly, but slows down when she sees us dancing. She stands on the threshold of the door, a thin bird of a smile fluttering on her face. But her eyes remain hurt and as distant from the smile as the southern Florida estuaries to where the local birds migrate in the winter.”

At the relationship’s worst, the house is electric with the abusive curses of Morag’s grandfather — and his pounding fists. Morag listens in the dark. “‘I’m going to kill him,’ I thought. But morning came, and he was always alive. And I was always relieved to find him that way.”

Such a household cannot hold; inevitably, a resolution — even a horrifying one — must come. Thanks to McNeil’s artistry, the conclusion, when it comes, rings true. One finishes Hunting Down Home with full-blooded sympathy for all the players (even, just a tad, for great-grandmother Eileen). There are no two-bit villains here, no pat answers. No reason for melancholy. After all, it is just nature, where awesomeness and awfulness are forever (and fiercely) entangled.

An interview with Jean McNeil

Born in Canada, author Jean McNeil now lives in London. While Hunting Down Home is her first novel, she’s also authored Rough Guides to Costa Rica and Latin America, as well as serving a stint as a BBC correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. Mountain Xpress interviewed McNeil by e-mail about her travels, her experiences with the cantankerous Canadian reading public — and the difficulties of going home again in fiction.

MX: Your publisher mentioned that Hunting Down Home was recently reviewed in USA Today and The New York Times. How has this attention changed things for you — or has it?

JM: I’m very pleased to be reviewed in both. By now, though, I am used to being reviewed — in Canada and the U.K., for my novel and for other writing. I’ve had good and bad; in this way, I feel a bit like a veteran and am fairly nonplused. It is difficult, though, being reviewed in papers of great prestige and which everyone reads. If you get a bad review, you can feel it as a sort of public humiliation. But that’s one of the risks you take in writing books.

MX: What opinions have people had about Hunting Down Home that surprised you?

JM: Well, one reviewer in Canada clearly hated it. She had a very strong reaction not just to the book, but to the sensibility behind it, and the review itself was as much an evaluation of the book as of me as a character. I think it’s unusual for someone to react that strongly against a book. On the more positive side, English people seem to love it (so did the English papers, like the Telegraph and the Observer), even though the English are so often keen on clever-ambitious novels. Some even told me it was a real page-turner, which is the last thing I would have expected.

MX: Clearly you called upon a lot of your sensory memories as a child to write this novel — the details of such things as the seasons and of shifting weather are very beautiful and very specific. Was it hard to write/recall all this while living in another place, with all the differences, such as another way of speaking?

JM: When you remember or write from afar, it is always different. In fact, there are risks of sentimentalizing or getting things wrong. This was the opinion of some Canadians. But then Canadians have little sympathy for people who leave the country to do other (more interesting) things. They are also very stuck on regionalism, and if you don’t make plain exactly where you are writing about, they suspect that you’ve been away so long you’ve forgotten and, in any case, are not a real Canadian anymore. For me, the process of memory and the process of fiction writing are separate. I didn’t write the book from memory, rather recreated somewhere that had never existed but is also similar to what did. I think it’s a good point about how people speak — one forgets or loses the lilt of the lingo so quickly. I can’t speak now as I used to when I lived in Nova Scotia (or in Ontario, where the speech is also different). But I do have a very good aural memory — for voices, accents, inflections — so I was able to remember parts of how people spoke. Now, after eight years in Britain, I find myself writing dialogue that is essentially British — it’s not just a matter of the words people use, but the tone, inflection, speed, subtleties, etc. So maybe the Canadians will feel vindicated when I can’t even remember to say ‘How’s it goin’, eh?’ (i.e., hicksville Canadian expression).

MX: How do you think your travels to Central and South America have informed your writing?

JM: Since place seems to have a big effect on me emotionally, I actually thought that travel would expand my emotional (as well as intellectual) range. I’ve set a lot of short fiction in foreign countries (not including the U.K., which was for a long time a foreign country). For me this is exciting, to try to create a reality in a place one is not entirely of, or familiar with. But I do wonder if this works — for example, if this translates into great writing with any regularity. (There are exceptions, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet — although it is now out of favor). It seems to me that, for most readers, literature’s appeal is vernacular — they want it to express something of their own existence, to see themselves mirrored in something, to hear familiar speech patterns, and above all to recognize something of themselves in it. I call this the recognition factor, and I’m not sure it is really the goal of literature (although it’s always been the goal of the book-devouring middle classes; see George Eliot and Henry James).

MX: One of the things I admired about Hunting Down Home is how you dealt with the complexities of love and brutality without slipping into a sort of 12-step psychobabble. What are your thoughts about that?

JM: I think things like violence, abuse, mistrust, disorders, etc., are very complex. For me, I refuse to see anything within the victim/oppressor schema. Sometimes, of course, it is clear that there is a victim and an oppressor, and that the relationship is evil (i.e. the torture/disappearance culture of Chile in the early 1970s and Argentina in the mid-’70s). I think victimization is a shortcut to understanding — it is actually an uncomplex reaction to the rather more complex problem of how to treat others and oneself. Psychobabble, or pop-psych, is similar: It allows the illusion of understanding, or of categorizing one’s thoughts or behavior. What interests me more is the fabric of emotion: what happens between two or more people, its quality, its feel, its atmosphere and, ultimately, its meaning. I suppose I write as someone who has inhabited many ambiguous situations — and, in fact, helped to create them — and I have an interest in trying to depict the ambiguity of being.

MX: A strong sense of isolation pervades Hunting Down Home. Do you connect that at all with the book’s island setting, its cold and hardships, and how that shapes the island’s inhabitants?

JM: I used to feel — when I was younger, and certainly before I wrote Hunting Down Home — that landscape and the people who lived within it would occasionally merge; in more psychological terms, that we actually ingest the signals that our physical surroundings send to us, so that they become part of our character. For example, growing up in the climate and landscape of Cape Breton, I couldn’t help notice that there was a certain hardiness, steely-mindedness, and also [a] yearning for euphoria and release in the people I knew. This seemed to me to sometimes be the exact character of the land, as well. Also, I think long, hard winters do cause one to turn in on oneself, to become more contemplative, even self-punishing and melancholy.

MX: One of the characters that interested me was Morag’s great-grandmother Eileen. She seems awful — yet I got the sense that you enjoyed describing her, putting her into words. Do you have strong memories of growing up with that sort of person?

JM: I did grow up surrounded by really vivid characters. Your comment “that sort of person” is interesting, because what I really think they were, these people of my great-grandparents’ or grandparents’ generation, were individuals who were not worried about being reasonable or rational or “knowing themselves.” They were (without romanticizing them) spontaneous, contradictory, sometimes mistaken, uninformed, childish, intelligent people. They were the kind of people who were well-defined in outline.

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