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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 Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

Duckbacks, 2001, 244 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Lantern Bearers cover

In a very short Part One we find Neil Pritchard is about to turn down a contract to write the biography of a famous musician, Euan Bone, he knew in his youth. A diagnosis of cancer persuades him to change his mind. The much longer Parts Two to Four relate his remembrances of the summer he spent living with his Aunt Nessie in the town of Auchendrennan on the Solway Coast, where he was sent while his parents worked through the problems in their marriage. His boyhood treble singing voice gained him an entry to Slezer’s Walk, the house where Bone lived with his companion (as such a relationship was publicly referred to in those days) Douglas Maitland. To test how the music sounded, Neil was to be the vocal guinea pig performer of a piece Bone was composing inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern Bearers”. Part Five rounds off the tale of Pritchard’s entanglement in Bone’s life.

Frame’s style here is writerly but nevertheless highly readable. The author being Scottish we of course have various comments on the country’s attitudes. “The Scots have a way of cutting other Scots down to size but Bone was lucky in that respect ….. received opinion” holding that he was a leading figure in Scotland’s musical renaissance. Via Neil, Frame tells us Bone’s music has a “typical unresolved Scottish conflict of intellect and emotion, that timid repressed life of the feelings.” We also have a typically Scottish observation where Neil says of his father, “My mother shot him A Look.”

The unfolding of Neil’s relationship with Bone, the explanation for Maitland’s unease at Neil’s presence in Slezer’s Walk, the awkwardnesses of Aunt Nessie’s navigation of ‘difficult’ areas of life to do with an adolescent boy, the repression of feeling in 1950s Scotland (I might add of Scotland since the Reformation till very recently indeed) are all brilliantly and subtly depicted. Neil’s complicated response to Bone’s distress, and distancing when biology intervenes in their relationship (which lead to the actions for which Neil wishes to atone years later) are beautifully handled. The only off note I could detect was the introduction – albeit offstage – of Scottish nationalist activists, but that provided the impetus for the novel’s defining moment.

On the evidence of this novel Frame is a master, The Lantern Bearers well worth inclusion in that 100 best list. Why had I not heard of him before encountering it? I obviously read too many London-based reviews.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “on the the Solway Firth” (only one ‘the’ required.) Otherwise: arrengements (arrangements,) “vocal chords” (x2: they are cords,) “bundling them in a boorie – every which way – ” (Frame doesn’t feel the need to explain other such Scots words in the text,) McLuskie (I’ve never seen this alternative spelling to McCluskey before,) “a prospect of canal, the Clyde and Forth” (it’s usually called the Forth and Clyde canal, I’ve never the reverse before,) “the Arts Galleries” (this is the one in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, usually designated as just ‘the Art Gallery’,) cromandel (coromandel.)

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