Alistair MacLeod puts together the story of a fiercely loyal family and the tradition that drives it. The story begins in a low-key manner as Alexander MacDonald, our narrator, makes a regular trip through south-western Ontario to Toronto to check on his older brother Calum, a Queen-Street skid-row alcoholic. Alexander is a successful dentist. Calum is 15 years older than Alexander, and because of the age gap, they had remarkably different childhoods which lead to different lives. The events throughout their lives created a strong intimacy between them, but it would be wrong to call them close. They share formative tragedies. Alexander takes us back a few hundred years to when their first ancestor, Calum Ruadh (ruadh for this red hair) came to Cape Breton from Scotland. The remainder of the book is an examination of this situation, of how Alexander and his brother came to be in such different circumstances and the ties, ancient and modern, that nevertheless bind them. Along the way one is led to consider, amongst other things, the disparity of human fate, the value of a life within and outside of a family, the importance of place and what it means to leave, and perhaps ambiguous role of family loyalty. No Great Mischief develops slowly, deliberately, and thoughtfully. Most of it takes place well in the past as we get glimpses of our narrator and Calum interacting tensely years later, when one is happily married and the other lies in a filthy flat, dead life. It's all delicately balanced, the past and present, life, and death.
Weaknesses that are present throughout the novel give me the feeling that I was picking up a memoir about an old Scottish family following their journey to Canada and the decedents’ journeys afterwards. The cast of characters and their relationships were lovely, but I found that I didn’t love his characters. Some of the characters are one-dimensional and lack sympathy. At times, I was confused as to which Alexander the author was referring to. It created confusion by having many characters with the same name. I did not like the fact that the author jumped back and forth between the plot. No matter what page you turned to, it is as if you did not skip a page. Although I agree that this novel was wonderfully written, however, it is also a recollection of one man's past. I believe that MacLeod fails to see that not everyone is interested in his life. Additionally, Gaelic was used throughout the novel quite often that I found myself confused at times. Also, the endless use of quotations to highlight certain words, sometimes several in a sentence, can quickly become bothersome.
There are many strengths throughout the novel.