"Home" by John MacKay is a simply magnificent book: go out and buy it.
There's a sense in which we could end this review at that point and have said all we really need to say. But a one-sentence review wouldn't be anything like adequate recognition of John MacKay's remarkable achievement in writing a novel that is both simple and profound; that is fairly modest in length, yet succeeds in giving a sweeping account of the story of successive generations of one family over a century; and that is specific to one family living in one house, yet also tells the story of the Isle of Lewis over what must have been the most tumultuous century in its history. How is it possible to achieve those seemingly contradictory things? You'll need to read the book yourself to see if you can work it out.
We start with Angus MacLeod, universally known as Faroe, "on account of a cloudy story of a landing on the North Atlantic archipelago during a youthful sailing adventure." Faroe has built a new house for his family, a house that is "fit for the new century: stone-built, slate-roofed, rising one-and-a half floors with dormer windows overlooking all before." It replaced the family's old blackhouse and the whole family have gathered to celebrate, though in his heart Faroe senses that this is the last time they will all be together.
He is right. Each chapter follows the fortunes of one or a few of the members of the family. One daughter leaves for Canada to be married to a man from Lewis she's never met; then the boys are called away to serve in the war. We live through the trauma for the island of the Iolaire disaster, when a ship loaded with returning soldiers was sunk outside Stornoway harbour with huge loss of life. Other family members move their lives in various directions, and then we begin to follow members of the next generation: some leaving Lewis, others visiting or returning. And so on, until we conclude with an echo of the opening scene, albeit exactly one hundred years later.
This wonderful book offers its readers a visual aid that totally transforms your understanding of who is doing what and how they relate to all the other characters. Have you ever read a family biography and had to keep referring to a family tree at the beginning of the book? In "Home", every chapter is headed by a small family tree, with the names of that chapter's central characters in bold. This tree grows or is trimmed and adapted as the story develops, so it is always relevant to what you are actually reading. It's not something we've seen before, but we certainly expect to see the approach adopted more widely.
At the risk of repetition, we'll end where we started. This is a great book, and one we cannot recommend highly enough.