I had a shaky start with this book. It is written in Scottish dialect which I could simply not ‘hear’ in my head. The thought of reading a whole book in this language was intimidating so when I got to the first, short section in the voice of the music master I welcomed it with relief. I kept having to stop and re-read a sentence, to work out what it said. I persevered, and the voice slowly started to settle in my ear. I’m glad I didn’t give up but I’m not convinced about the wisdom of writing 80% of the book in dialect. I fear a lot of readers will be lost along the way.
A young French boy meets a young Scottish girl. Deirdre is a seamstress at a laird’s house in Scotland. “My father was neither owermuckle nor poor, and we were all in the service of our Laird and His Lady one way or anither, our lives thirled to theirs.” She is destined to use her skills in the convent embroidering church vestments. Feilamort is an orphan who can sing like an angel. Both must make difficult decisions about their futures. She is 13, with growing limbs which seem too big for her body; he doesn’t know his age or his beginnings.
Part I is set in Scotland, a Scotland dead and drab according to the Laird’s Lady and Signor Carlo, the Italian music master. Deirdre on the other hand celebrates the countryside, seeing beyond the dullness to the beauty and recognising the signs of life in death. She sees a fallen tree, the wood torn and splintered. “Yet its branches had put out shoots which were growing in the sun; some tiny, others starting tae open. The buds on other trees were pink and green but these were greeny-grey, like sage leaves, ghostly and unhealthy looking, drab and straggly as if unlike tae live, but living. By some miracle, a deid tree deprived of roots and water, had put forth shoots and, in its dying breath, desired tae pour out life.”Deirdre’s mother considers the options for her daughter, the nunnery or marriage to a local lad. “Some [folk] need tae be close by others all the time; they intertwine like the ivy, grow where they touch. And some, like the clow that grows on the rocks above the sea, need space, they maun be in the open and feel the wind and rain and sun on them. And that is like you, Deirdre.”
Nature is at the heart of this novel. Action is not in the nature of Father Anthony, the priest who is such a significant influence on the lives of both children. “He was a craft designed for a gently flowing river on a delightful summer’s day, “ writes Donovan [above], “lacking the strength and stamina for storm-tossed waters.”
The plot has some twists and turns along the way, and the weather is used to symbolise Deirdre’s churning emotions. “Frae where we stood I couldna see the watter only hear the clash and scud of the waves, imagine the sweel and sway of it. The lighting was above us noo, shooting lang witchy fingers of siller across the sky, a gowtsie sky, the green of a sick plant, violet-edged.”
This book rewards patient reading, so choose the right time to read it.
‘Gone are the Leaves’ by Anne Donovan [published May 1 by Canongate Books]