Commonwealth Debut Writer’s Award 1997

It is the late 19th century and James Piper, a young Scottish piano-tuning immigrant, living on Cape Breton Island, elopes with Materia, his 13-year old child bride.  It is an inauspicious start as his Lebanese wife is promptly cut-off from her wealthy family. 

You know the family cannot last – no spoiler this, for this is the first sentence: They’re all dead now.

Yet, despite the odds (ostracism, WWI, the depression, WWII) and the oddities (and of these there are many) , somehow the Piper family remains an unit, until the children of the 3rd generation herald its final splintering.

Holding the novel and the family together are the relationships between the 4 Piper sisters: Kathleen, the beautiful singer; Mercedes, the devout one; Frances, the wild and Lily, the innocent.  It is Mercedes’s tenacity and self-sacrifice which delays the inevitable fragmenting after the deaths of her mother and elder sister.  In a rare moment of self-satisfaction

At last, Mercedes thinks, we are a family.  Daddy is senile, Frances is crazy, Lily is lame and I’m unmarried.  But we are a family.

A glorious description, full of black humour with hints of the dark events which have brought the family to this point.  Some of which we know, others yet to be revealed. 

This is a true saga, firmly rooted in the ghostly gothic and sensationalist traditions of the 19th century.  Fall On Your Knees contains 566 pages of addictive reading; the drama never ceasing, undulating and rising to multiple crescendos. Echoes of the past are replayed in the present and, because the telling isn’t always chronological, echoes of the present are replayed in the past.  The underlying secrets are revealed discretely – sometimes by a simple word or phrase – so that when the final revelations are made, they’re not that shocking but still remain sensational and  definitely of the 20th century kind.

MacDonald’s prose is finely wrought, by turns pious and pagan, brutal and sensual.  Full of omens, symbols and foreshadowing.  A hope chest that is anything but. Nothing as unforgettable as Materia’s wielding of the scissors as she cuts the kidneys for the family pie.  As grisly a foreshadowing as I’ve ever encountered.

Bonus points, too for the epigraph – I often find these somewhat obscure but this quote from Wuthering Heights is pitch perfect for the tone, emotional power and  torturous relationships at the heart of this novel.

“Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?”
“Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” 

This really is a mesmerising debut novel, first published in 1997. MacDonald’s second The Way The Crow Flies (2003) is based on a true case of criminal injustice.  It confirms her talent by being as well-written and fascinating as Fall On Your Knees.  Does anyone know if she is still writing?  Because, as far as I’m concerned, her third novel is well overdue.

 

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