“The Ice Bridge,” like D.R. MacDonald’s previous fiction, is set on Cape Breton Island, the lobster-claw-shaped island that forms the northernmost part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton is famously beautiful and draws many tourists each summer, but in MacDonald’s novels it is no picture-postcard paradise. It is a harsh but lovely, rock-strewn seacoast — severe, ragged and forlorn, haunted by history and peopled by hardy stoics who think of survival more than of comfort. It’s a place to heal, slowly and painfully, or maybe a place to refuse to.
When Anna Starling’s husband leaves her and she flees her California life, the tiny settlement of Cape Seal seems the ideal place to go: the opposite end of the continent, both physically and culturally. She rents an old house and takes to wandering the beach, looking for things that have drifted ashore, materials she might incorporate into her art. She appreciates the isolation but has a hard time adapting to the place’s brutality. Within a few days of arriving, she sees a small dog flung to its death off a bridge, an image that continues to haunt her. Later, attempting to rescue another dog that has been caught in a trap, she breaks through thin ice and almost dies in the frigid water.
The man who pulls her out of the water, Murdock MacLennan, is mourning the death of his wife, a grief from which it seems he might never recover. Though they are in some respects possessed by their respective spouses, Anna and Murdock feel an inevitable attraction to each other. Inevitable, but not easy: Nothing is easy for either of these damaged people at this moment in their lives.
Indeed, nearly all of the relationships here are touched by the dynamics of romantic attraction and sexual politics. Anna’s friendship with a local woman named Breagh Carmichael at first appears straightforward and purely affectionate, but as time passes, tensions and signs of rivalry make themselves felt. Because Breagh is young and attractive, Anna can’t help but compare her with the woman Anna’s estranged husband has taken up with. In one fascinatingly complex scene, Anna convinces Breagh to pose in the nude, then finds herself resenting the younger woman’s beauty and has to resist the temptation to “do a Lucian Freud,” making her appear less attractive than she really is.
Murdock, meanwhile, is haunted by guilt over feelings he experienced during his late wife’s final illness. “It disgusted him that he could not feel quite the same way about her as she lay in her last days, her looks so different, he hated himself — she’s not beautiful like she was — it was selfish, terrible, by any lights it was awful of him to hold such a thought.”
At such times, when the book’s quiet prose rises to the level of philosophical reflection and moral critique, it becomes a kind of meditation on beauty. At the same time, forward momentum arises from a different sort of narrative, one centered on criminal activity. Like much of the surrounding territory, the village of Cape Seal has seen better days. The once-thriving fishing village is now economically depressed, and the insidious tentacles of criminal activity — in particular, drug smuggling — are infiltrating even the lives of people like Murdock and Anna, who have withdrawn into themselves nearly to the point of complete isolation.
MacDonald, a lecturer emeritus at Stanford University, passes most of the year in Palo Alto, Calif., but it’s clear from his fiction that Cape Breton, where he was born, still claims his heart. Perhaps the ice bridge of the title is a metaphor for the fragile ties that connect dying communities like Cape Seal with their more prosperous past, or for our tenuous attempts to make genuine contact with other people. (The cultural differences that separate Cape Breton and California color Murdock and Anna’s slow courtship in ways that are both poignant and, at times, humorous.)
Then again, the ice bridge might represent our attempts to be complete people, to connect ourselves with ourselves. At a funeral late in the book, one character eulogizes another with these words: “Sometimes we can’t match one side of a man to the other, hard to think of nice words that’d come together, in some sweet way. But that’s right, for a man of contradictions.” “The Ice Bridge” is full of nice words that come together in a sweet way, but it is part of MacDonald’s maturity as a writer that he does not pretend that beauty — the beauty of words or a landscape or a lovely face — can resolve life’s contradictions.
Jollimore is the author of “At Lake Scugog: Poems” and two books of philosophy, “Love’s Vision” and “On Loyalty.”
THE ICE BRIDGE
Counterpoint. 317 pp. $26