Contemporary authors, one theory goes, are drawn to the genre of historical fiction because it offers greater dramatic challenges for characters to encounter than the present-day can offer. In the past, this school of thought continues, the stakes were not only higher, but clearer. Power lay within the hands of competing dynasties and scheming cardinals; today, one struggles to locate its true source within a blurred and shifting nexus of career politicians, corporate lobbyists, and the media. In the long-ago, marriage couldn’t be undone with the help of a good lawyer. And people struggled with their faith, not their Facebook settings.
Prior to her latest novel Gone are the Leaves, Anne Donovan set her fiction – the short story collection Hieroglyphics (2001) and the novels Buddha Da (2003) and Being Emily (2008) – in the present. Her themes have remained consistent across her work, pivoting on the question: what do we owe to others – and what do we owe to ourselves? In Donovan’s fiction this is filtered through art and religion, the pursuit of both often coming into conflict with the loyalty owed to loved ones. The question is if anything, Donovan’s readers learn, more potent in medieval Europe than present day Glasgow, with a knock-on effect: Gone are the Leaves is more obviously plot-driven than earlier works.
If Gone are the Leaves suggests Donovan is a descendant of Walter Scott, her first novel Buddha Da gave the impression she was a graduate of the school of Kelman. Its premise is easy to summarise: working class man embarks on spiritual quest, with consequences for himself and those closest to him. At first the clash between a yearning for transcendence and worldly matters is played for laughs. Is there a better city on the planet than Glasgow for the contradictions and comedy inherent in this story to play out? The hero Jimmy McKenna is a painter and decorator who, as much to his surprise as to his friends’, converts to Buddhism. An early scene sets the tone. Jimmy accompanies a trio of lamas who believe they’ve located a reincarnated spiritual leader to a council house in Carmunnock. After bamboozling the grandmother watching the child, both sides slowly realise they’re mistaken. The ‘wifie’ shouts after the retreating holy men, ‘Tommy’ll kill you if he funds oot – he’s a good protestant, so he is.’
Elements of the novel, the moments where the cosmic and comic intertwine, are familiar from Alan Spence’s fiction, especially The Magic Flute and Way to Go. What Donovan contributed was a new focus on domesticity, on a wife and a daughter unsettled by Jimmy’s transformation. Buddha Da’s comedy grows subdued as the book progresses. After initially tolerating Jimmy’s new-found dedication to Buddhism, his family are steadily alienated. Jimmy swearing off alcohol is one thing; when he tells his wife he wants to be celibate, she feels rejected. Matters escalate until Jimmy finds himself ejected from his home.
Donovan’s second novel reworks elements of Buddha Da, but now with art replacing spirituality as the plot’s driver. Again Donovan locates her story within a Glaswegian family of Catholics of Irish descent, only this time religion is of less importance to the protagonist than literature and the visual arts. Fiona O’Connell’s spirit guide is not the Buddha, but Emily Bronte. Once more, this is played for laughs in the novel’s early stages. Her parents affect shock when they find her willingly undertaking housework; they’re unaware that she’s has just learned that Bronte read while doing her chores, and that Fiona’s cleaning is an unusual act of literary homage.
Bronte’s life and fiction become a template for plot-advancing incidents as well as Fiona’s soul-searching. Her mother dies in her forties, during childbirth: ‘Doesnae happen in a clean bright modern hospital with highly trained professional staff and all the technology you can imagine. In a Victorian novel, aye, but no on the eve of the twenty-first century.’ Later, her devastated, drink-fuddled father almost burns down the flat, recalling Branwell Bronte, who set his bed on fire. Amrik, the musician brother of her stolid first boyfriend Jas, has something of the Byronic hero to him too.
Over the course of Being Emily, Fiona, like Jimmy McKenna before her, finds it difficult to balance a governing passion (for her, the visual arts) with obligations to loved ones. Donovan inflicts an injury upon her novel, however, by referring to Bronte. It’s rarely a good idea for a writer to invoke a literary past-master uncritically; the reader may find himself thinking his time would be better spent re-reading one of their classics than the contemporary and subsidiary volume in hand. The reader is also liable to find the newer novel’s trials somewhat less strenuous after contemplating those of a Victorian heroine. Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw’s decision to marry Edgar Linton ultimately destroys both families. Fiona doesn’t exist in a world where the stakes are so high for protagonists. In her world (to summarise), they go out with someone, break-up, mope, and finally, they get a second chance.
Little feels at risk. Despite dark moods, Fiona grows up to be an award-winning artist. A talented artist himself, Jas successfully reconciles himself to becoming instead a chemist in order to carry on the family business, a pharmacy; he even forgives his brother Amrik for seducing Fiona. Amrik himself becomes a cult musician. His act of transgression isn’t related to his race, religion (Sikh), or even his bisexuality, which everyone gets over eventually; he perplexes people by his refusal to allow his music to be recorded, a truly bewildering act to the denizens of the digiverse.
This dissatisfaction is not unique to the reader. Donovan’s novels chronicle and celebrate a relatively well-adjusted, multicultural Glasgow, where difference can not only be overcome but eventually celebrated. What makes for a healthier place to live doesn’t necessarily make for better source material though, and Donovan herself appears to feel that. At the conclusion of Being Emily, she has Fiona think, while contemplating Wuthering Heights, ‘In the twenty-first century we don’t live like this, with a great love, with a passion as vast as the ocean and pure as the stars. We are tentative and conditional; all the get-out clauses are written fae the moment we set eyes on someone. We don’t believe there is one person for us – we try out partners as we send for things on the internet, knowing we have thirty days to return them.’
So where does the present-day novelist go for meaningful tales to tell? I can’t believe a talented author in our present era of austerity, of bedroom taxes and food banks, can’t reboot tragedy for the present – although I will admit that such attempts as I have read (such as Ross Raisin’s Waterline) were worthier than they were compelling works of fiction. The world of finance clearly needs a neo-Dickens or Trollope to reveal its mechanisms and machinations to a general audience, but what author has the time, connections, and sheer brain-power to take on that task? And so then, it is to the past we must go.
Gone are the Leaves takes place in an unspecified medieval period, possibly the early sixteenth century given an oblique reference to Da Vinci. The text is otherwise denuded of pointers that would identify the era, which rings true. The illiterate teenage narrator would have been unaware of the names of contemporaneous power-brokers in the court or church. The book also lightly wears the labours of its author’s researches. We are not treated to digressions on feudal tax schemes or mercenaries, how oil paints were made or typical courses during a baronial feast – for which this reader is grateful. What you might call the ‘never mind the story, feel the weight of research’ school of historical fiction is absent.
To the contrary, Donovan prefers on occasion to court the anachronistic over the slavishly authentic. Deirdre, who narrates the majority of the book, speaks in a sort of Burnsian Scots: ‘The cranreuch had been upon us for days and a haze of frosty air rose frae the fields. Our toes nipped wi cauld on waking and steamclouds chuffed frae our mouths.’ ‘Cranreuch’ is a word you may be familiar with from ‘To a Mouse’; etymologists date it to the 1680s. Donovan couldn’t replicate the language of Henryson’s and Gavin Douglas’ era, not without seriously limiting its potential audience (and as an accompanying press release likens the book to volumes by Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevallier and Joanne Harris, the publisher must be hoping to shift some serious units with this title). It’s as good a way as any of evoking ye olde way of speaking, and, as it happens, a Burnsian register is not the most jolting aspect of the language. One or two modern locutions slip in: ‘I would like a straight answer’, ‘I felt nauseous’, and so on.
The plot takes something from the Abelard and Heloise story, only the lovers are lowborn, and the conclusion of their tale is less a tragedy, more twisty, almost thriller-like, with a flourish of magical realism thrown in towards its conclusion. In other ways though, it remains recognisably an Anne Donovan novel. Like the majority of her short stories and novels, it is narrated by an adolescent girl. Deirdre is a seamstress in the service of her local lord. She’s something of a premature Romantic: ‘The trees long for us. Their branches dance in the wind.’ Her love of nature is disapproved of. As a nun thinks: ‘She thinks she is seeing God in nature perhaps, but in truth she worships false gods.’
Her nature-worship is shared by a new friend, Feilamort, a French orphan whose extraordinary singing voice has won him favour with Deirdre’s employers, the local Laird and Lady. So enamoured is the Lady she doesn’t want it to end. And so to prevent his voice breaking, she arranges for Feilamort to become a castrato, a process he submits to as it will give him a musical career in courts across Europe. Before losing his genitals, Feilamort and Deirdre make love, and although his voice is yet to break, he impregnates the girl. By the time she realises this, Deidre has joined a nunnery and Feilamort is performing on the continent. The lovers look set never to meet again – at which point the plotting grinds into action. A number of very hoary conventions, such as the foundling unaware of his noble blood, are brought into play to bring the pair of them into contact once more.
All good fun, but I’m not certain Donovan has gained more than she’s lost by translating her central theme into a historical context. The plot is, well, plottier and the consequences of exploring that theme are more serious for her characters, yet at the same time, it develops a cartoonish feel as it goes on; there is a vampirish creep of a villain, from whom the hero escapes via an invention that’s more steampunk than Hilary Mantel. The threats her latter-day heroes encounter might be small beer in comparison, but they at least feel rooted in something recognisably real to modern eyes. One can only hope Donovan might, for her next book, come back to the future.
Gone are the Leaves
Canongate, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-782112-62-4, 359PP