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Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2014, 361 p.

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

This is another very fine Scottish novel (my second such in a row) but it’s an odd coincidence that both this and Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers should have a boy’s treble singing voice as a significant plot driver.

The main narration duties here are carried out in the first person by Deirdre, a young embroideress in an unspecified Scottish castle overseen by a couple only ever referred to as the Laird and my Lady. Interspersed with Deirdre’s remembrances are third person segments from the viewpoint of the peripatetic priest Father Anthony, and further first person snippets from singing master Signor Carlo and nun Sister Agnes.

The Laird’s daughter, Lady Alicia, is on the marriage market and my Lady has brought back from France, where she has relatives, a suitor with an entourage containing a page, Feilamort, of obscure origin but in possession of a voice like an angel. Feilamort is not the most robust of boys but he and Deirdre make friends and begin to spend some of what spare time they have together playing in the woods.

This being the Middle Ages and the glorification of God a bounden duty, the preservation of His instrument to that end, a pure singing voice, is an active consideration. In particular, Signor Carlo sees great prospects for himself in Rome with Feilamort under his tutelage. Feilamort himself accepts it is probably his best option for a secure future but before the procedure takes place asks Deirdre if he can know her as a man knows a woman. After initial hesitation she consents, and the novel’s path is set.

Deirdre’s secret revealed to Father Anthony, he arranges for her to travel overseas in the company of Sister Agnes. She ends up in an unusual castle belonging to a Lord known as the Master, where resides an artist called Monsieur Alberto (who has echoes of Leonardo da Vinci.) The Master commissions Deirdre to sew an embroidery of a unicorn from one of Monsieur Alberto’s paintings but otherwise why she was brought there remains a mystery to her. The nature of Feilamort’s – and therefore Deirdre’s – connection to the place slowly unravels while in the background lurks the shadowy figure of a Monsieur Garnet.

The Deirdre passages are rendered in a very braid Scots indeed. It was here I had some initial reservations as Donovan is not entirely consistent in applying this. “To”, for example is sometimes given in English and elsewhere appears as “tae”, whereas Deirdre would almost certainly always have used the latter exclusively. Similarly I noticed “afternoon” where “efternoon” or even “efternin” would seem more natural. But I can understand why Donovan made the choices she did. The liberal use of Scottish words – albeit mostly weather related and hence perhaps more readily understandable – might otherwise present too much of a barrier to readers not familiar with written Scots. A (short) glossary appears at the end but by no means covers all the Scots words in the text. They do, however, provide the flavour of the novel which would, I submit, be a much lesser thing if written in standard English. The expressiveness of these Scots words is a major part of the book’s overall impact. They might even be said to heighten the book’s literary qualities.

The mediæval Scottish setting reminded me vaguely of Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen but Gone Are the Leaves is its own thing entirely. Donovan captures superbly the fears and misgivings of the adolescent – going on adult – Deirdre, the suspicions of Signor Carlo and the wisdom of Sister Agnes. In this light her decision to render Father Anthony’s sections in the third person is entirely appropriate.

Even if resolution comes via frankly unlikely means (but justified within the novel’s narrative) and the ending has a very traditional Scottish feel this is an exemplary work – better than Donovan’s earlier novel Buddha Da.

Pedant’s corner:- whisps (wisps,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) Jacques’ (Jacques’s,) Feilmort (x1, elsewhere always Feilamort.)

The Lament: A Scottish Tradition.

I mentioned recently in my review of Christopher Rush’s A Twelvemonth and a Day that it fell into that long list of laments with which the Scottish novel is liberally bestowed – going back at least as far as the poem on the state of the nation written on King Alexander III’s death after falling from a cliff in Fife in 1286, but which may well be an oral tradition older still.

This sense of things lost seems to be an itch which Scottish letters is unable not to scratch.

Many of the books on the 100 best Scottish Books list fall into this tradition; of the ones I have read not only the Rush but also Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place, William McIlvanney’s Docherty, George Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, Neil M Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song certainly qualify. Arguably Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes also fits the bill; its title certainly does.

Whether this dwelling on things gone by is due to a sense of lost nationhood or not is a matter for debate but the itch is played out not just in Scottish literature, the lament is a major strand in bagpiping and has a long history in song (eg The Flowers o’ the Forest.) The Proclaimers’ Letter From America – “Bathgate no more” etc – is merely a modern take on the form.

Another important strand in the Scottish novel is that of the döppelganger/the supernatural. Here James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can certainly be seen as a reflection on the duality of the Scots psyche after the Treaty of Union as well as an illustration of Scottish literature’s fascination with the Devil, is the prototypical – and arguably the finest – example though Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is perhaps better known furth of Scotland.

On thinking about all this I realised that, despite being Science Fiction, my own novel A Son of the Rock was also such a lament (though it eschews any truck with the supernatural.) The book was certainly conceived in part as an allegory of the decline of shipbuilding on the Clyde which had occurred in my early lifetime but I had not consciously been aware of any wider resonances while I was writing it. I did though somewhat impertinently consider it as a “condition of Scotland” novel.

Perhaps Scotland’s condition has always been in decline, its writers always noticing what has been, is being, lost. I note here that Andrew Grieg’s Fair Helen is a retrospective lament for the loss of “wit and laughter, music and dance and kindliness” in the Reformation.

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