Gone are the Leaves marks a bold departure from the Glaswegian sandwich bars, alcoholic fathers and painter-decorators that have populated Orange Prize-shortlisted author Anne Donovan’s previous novels. Set in an undefined medieval period (probably mid- or later thirteenth century, given the allusions to a brewing civil war in Scotland), it is a sweet tale of love that recalls the courtly elegance of the Renaissance romance.
The plot is almost disconcertingly simple: Deirdre is a homely seamstress, Feliamort an orphaned page more suited to singing than to hard grit. They become friends. This is not the torrid passion of an adult romance; they are, after all, barely thirteen years of age at the novel’s open and not yet sixteen at its close. It is only when Feliamort learns that he is to become a castrato that they decide to consummate their relationship. Deirdre of course falls pregnant, and the two are catapulted into a world of adult politics neither are ready to live in.
Gone are the Leaves is a novel that refuses to pander to expectations. Its heroine is ‘plain,’ its hero follows her ‘like a wee dug’ – the pregnancy is the only narrative development you could feasibly label clichéd. Indeed, do not expect Deirdre to miraculously flourish into the most elegant young woman in Scotland, or Feliamort to transform himself into a courageous, leonine hero; Donovan writes ordinary people. It is their circumstances that are extraordinary. Some will of course find this style underwhelming. The happy banality of it all certainly poses some problems in terms of plot and pacing, with Donovan too content to sit alongside the heroine for days at a time as she nurses her child in quiet solitude, or works on her sewing. By contrast, the conception and birth of the child have been sprinted past, suggesting there are some structural flaws.
But there are two things so delightful about this novel that make the more mundane segments but a minor imperfection. The first is its lyricism. The Older Scots tongue spoken by Deirdre and others is both immersive and elegant. Deirdre may be plain, but in turning her seamstress’ eye to the landscape around her, she articulates beauty with an almost hypnotic rhythm:
The time when trees turn gowden and rid is the bonniest of the year. One misty morn, Feliamort and I jouked out without being seen, walked in the forest. Dampness sparkled, specks of water dreeping doon like pearls on a lady’s ballgoun. The wind had been strong the nicht afore and our path atween the huddled trees was strewn wi leaves. Further on, in a place exposed tae the scourge of the weather, a young birkie had been uprooted and lay on its side like a wounded fawn, severed frae the earth that nourished it.
The second delight of the novel, and arguably its true heroine, is the steely Sister Agnes. Her complex character unfolds mostly through the eyes of others, and her motives and involvement in Deirdre and Feliamort’s travails are certainly one of the more intriguing strands of the novel. In one late scene in particular, she emerges a fierce woman of the hour. It is her presence that gives this book its fire.
Gone are the Leaves might lose readers in its first half as it meanders towards any genuine drama, but for those who follow Donovan’s path to the end, there is much to like. If nothing else, this might be the most poetic novel I’ve read this year, and for that alone, it is worth seeking out.