Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Hunting Down Home

by Jean McNeil

Cruel seasons, isolated landscapes, a bloody history, madness, alcoholism, and a narrator named Morag: could a first novel possibly be more Canadian? Jean McNeil, a 28-year-old New Brunswick-born writer now based in England bravely takes on all the classic survival themes in Hunting Down Home, her story of a seven-year-old girl living on a Cape Breton island during the 1970s. Despite otherworldly touches drawn from African and Micmac cultures, the story’s harsh core of realism may be a little too kitchen-sink for some readers, especially in a book season that gives us Ann-Marie MacDonald’s imaginative Cape Breton epic, Fall On Your Knees. But McNeil has a strong sense of her story’s inherent drama, and renders it with an emotional authenticity.

Abandoned at birth by her estranged mother now living in Africa, Morag grows up in the embattled home of her maternal grandparents, Christine and Sandy. While only in their forties, decades of hard times and mutual resentment have ossified their relationship into a tableau of nightly recriminations and violence, with Morag caught in the middle between the hunter and the hunted. Sandy takes the child as his companion in everything from deer-hunting to drunk driving across the border. But his will to destruction terrifies her, and with a child’s wisdom, she senses that his love for her is more a shelter from lost relationships with his daughter, his wife, and his mother. When his rage reaches its inevitable point of no return, Morag must make her choice, and she chooses survival.

The challenges of McNeil’s bleak vision are tempered by suspenseful plot twists and a lyrical prose style. But for every striking image grounded in reality – a chainsaw stored in a bathtub, mascara-drawn eyelashes on a male burn victim – there are abstracted, poetic reveries that shade into deep purple. Sandy’s thirst for alcohol, for instance, leads to a description of scotch as liquid lover – “brown-bottle-eyed women, some local, some… from languid, mist-clogged lands” – that would not be out of place in a Robert James Waller novel. McNeil also has some problems with the consistency of the slippery narrative voice, since Morag is both a child and an adult remembering her past. For its flaws, Hunting Down Home stands as an urgent, uncompromising tale. In this broken Canadian family, there may be no healing for a damaged past, and no love without conditions: all we can do, McNeil suggests, is reject victimhood, have some faith, and be willing to live with the consequences of our tough choices. Failing that, there’s always Africa.