Book Review: The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil

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A review of The Brilliant and Forever, written by Catriona Robertson, FHSCE Liaison Support Librarian

MacNeil is a wordsmith and the novel delights with beautifully written passages and moments of unexpected humour which bring to light the human condition.

After having read and loved another one of Kevin MacNeil’s books, The Stornoway Way, I was really excited to see that his new book, The Brilliant and Forever, was shortlisted for the KU Big Read and jumped at the chance to read it. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

The Brilliant and Forever is set on a nameless island where humans and alpacas live unharmoniously side by side. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the island and the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where MacNeil grew up. Anyone from a small town can surely empathise with some of the idiosyncrasies of island life.

The novel centres around an annual book festival held on the island called The Brilliant and Forever. The festival draws an eclectic crowd of locals and literary types from further afield, who hope to make a name for themselves in this remote and strange place. We see events unfold from the perspective of our nameless protagonist, who is best friends with Macy and Archie the alpaca. Our protagonist is a contemplative man who experiences moments of clarity and calm, particularly whilst cycling around the island. As the reader, you can’t help but share his love and endearment for his companions. Macy defies conventions and is full of kooky ideas and witticisms and the funny but anxious Archie is nobly leading a fight for alpaca rights. All three are aspiring writers taking part in the literary festival.

Within the book is a series of short stories which are all individual entries for the festival. Each of these stories are unique, fantastic, humorous and heart-breaking. Even in these individual tales, MacNeil’s voice comes through. There is an unbroken thread weaving the festival stories together with themes of empathy, identity, and loneliness emerging. MacNeil also brings together folklore traditions of storytelling and the modern world.

The island can be seen as a microcosm of our society. There are many divides on the island, from the rich whitehousers to the poorer blackhousers. Black houses are traditional houses from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which were sometimes viewed as crude and inferior structures to the newer white houses. In the book, these houses represent the privileged and less privileged echelons of society. There is also divide between humans and alpacas. There are elements of segregation on the island, and alpacas are treated as second class citizens. Archie’s entry to the B&F festival is all the more remarkable as none of the judges are alpacas, and the publishers who hold power are all human. The privileged whitehousers have a veneer of respectability and civility but they struggle with perpetual unhappiness due to their materialistic culture. There are strong undercurrents of violence and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality amongst the whitehousers.

As I read the book I found myself at times despairing and at times full of rage for the injustices Archie and others face in the novel. Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the examples of unlikely friendships and the vision of a fair and shared community for all. I’d definitely recommend this book. If you don’t enjoy it, in the words of Archie, “it’s a jazz thing you don’t get”.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Brilliant & Forever, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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