Ann-Marie MacDonald, after an elliptical prelude, jumps into the main narrative of her novel Fall On Your Knees with “A long time ago, before you were born, there lived a family called Piper on Cape Breton Island.” What follows is a story full of uncontrollable twists and turns, deeply imagined characters and rich, extravagantly detailed scenes. Along the way, the reader gets high opera, low comedy, early jazz, bootlegging, bootmaking, various forms of repressed sexual yearning and ethnic cooking, birth, death, betrayal and ultimately reconciliation and redemption. It is an intoxicating mix and MacDonald can not write a dull sentence making the suffering of the blighted James Piper and his daughters compelling reading to say the least.
MacDonald, who has deep family roots in Cape Breton, is an award-winning playwright and poet and an accomplished actor (she might be best remembered locally as star of the rather saccharine CBC-TV movie Island Love Song). I have a problem with Fall On Your Knees, it’s that too many of its big scenes feel over-choreographed by MacDonald’s enthusiasm to achieve some showy literary effect. The dust jacket uses words like “epic proportions” and “mythically charged”, but I don’t know; covering a lot of ground doesn’t make a book an epic and having unworldly, outsized emotions doesn’t make a set of characters mythic. And because MacDonald takes great pains to isolate the Piper family from friends, family and community, her story almost, and big events in the outside world – like World War I and the murder of coalminer William Davis – become minor diversions in the Piper family romance with itself. Despite these reservations, Fall On Your Knees is a ripping yarn and establishes Ann-Marie MacDonald as a major new novelist.