Scotch, With a Twist
All, as they say, that glitters is not gold.
Imported cigars, posh foreign convertibles, crisp linen suits, vacations in Portofino . . . welcome to the exclusive world of Slezer’s Wark, where the dashing Scottish composer Euan Bone toils away on his next masterpiece—a score for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Lantern Bearers”—and searches for his muse: a boy with an unbroken voice.
Enter young Neil Pritchard who, while visiting with his aunt, auditions for the composer and gradually becomes enveloped into the mysterious world of Bone and his musician companion Douglas Maitland.
In a manner that would do Hitchcock proud (and the author has frequently been lauded as “Hitchcock-like”), Ronald Frame creates an eerie story rapt with betrayal, envy and obsession in his latest book The Lantern Bearers, which takes its title from Stevenson’s essay).
The story begins with a present-day Neil, a writer, who has been asked by his publisher to write a biography of Bone. He agrees, noting that “. . . I had to make my atonement. Two ghosts from long ago had to be laid to rest.”
By doing so, Neil unravels his memory and harks back to the ghost of Slezer’s Wark past, where quiet summer afternoons were spent dutifully singing as Bone plays the piano. It eventually takes a different turn as Bone whisks Neil away for time alone and away from Maitland’s watchful, protective eye. Neil revels in the attention he receives from the charming composer, and slowly but surely assumes an unusual claim of not only “The Lantern Bearers,” but also Bone’s attentions.
He takes in every detail of Bone’s manner of dress, speech, habits, and the tasteful décor of the house, gradually placing a firm distance between the Neil at Slezer’s Wark, and the Neil who has to return to his middle-aged, unglamorous aunt after his afternoon singing sessions are finished.
Tragedy strikes, however, when in the midst of an afternoon session, Neil’s voice breaks, putting an end to his idyllic days as Bone’s muse. He is promptly thanked and dismissed by Bone, who resumes auditions and finds a replacement for Neil. Angry at having being forgotten so quickly, Neil starts following Bone and monitoring his moves, vowing that Bone would “rue the day he had brought him [the new boy] to Slezer’s Wark.” He wanders around Yett Street, where Bone and Maitland live, hoping to catch the occasional glimpse of Bone, and runs into Maitland who bluntly informs him: “Look, just get away from here. . . . You won’t believe me, but I’m thinking of what’s best. . . . Forget this place and forget us.”
Frame deftly allows us glimpses of Neil’s unnerving behavior as he shrugs off Maitland’s warning and, realizing that his replacement has left, becomes more adamant in his watch. He follows Bone (who chooses to ignore Neil’s presence) around town, thinking to himself: “He [Bone] had to finish . . . the Lantern Bearers, didn’t he understand that?” His obsession gradually leads him to steal (though temporarily) the sheets to “The Lantern Bearers,” thereby paving the road to ruin for Bone and Maitland, who is blamed for taking the manuscript, unaware that Neil has, unknowingly, set him up for disaster.
Bone’s music, the score to Stevenson’s essay, serves as the quintessential backdrop and driving force of the story (and knowledge of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing helps in this regard.) The rest is only the rest - this is what matters most. In the closing chapter, after allowing his memory to unravel, we return to the older, wiser Neil, who has to finally put haunting memories to rest by paying homage to the looming shadow of Bone and Slezer’s Wark and, more important, to “. . . give the music back.”
When it rains, it pours, and apparently it rains considerably in Scotland, which has offered readers, particularly in the past few years, a series of bleak though riveting books by a slew of hotshot talents (Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh, to name a few). Add Frame to the glowing roster, (though Frame would probably scowl at having been placed in the category). Winner of Scotland’s distinguished Saltire Award, The Lantern Bearers has been hailed by the discerning British press as a breakthrough for Frame, who has also adapted the book for the British screen. (Should Hollywood eye the book’s potential, David Mamet, for the art-house crowd, or the more mainstream Jonathan Demme, could do justice to the story.)
Frame, who has often criticized the fact that the Scots seem to only praise gritty, dark-side-of-life novels, has ironically delivered a rather disturbing tale of his own. All right, so his characters aren’t the usual wrong-side-of-the-tracks, heroin-happy ruffians, and yes, they prefer pate foie gras to baked beans, thanks very much, but betrayal and cruelty (intentional or otherwise) are worthy candidates of a “dark side of life” as any.
Frame is a master of intrigue, and the reader feels almost deceived when the judgments they have gradually formed as the story progresses are put to question: Is Neil really just a naïve boy who doesn’t know any better? Is Maitland only possessive of Bone and his talent, and selfish in his efforts to keep Neil at bay - or does he actually have Neil’s interest at heart? Frame has often stated that he refuses to depict his characters as heroes or villains; instead, he opts for “three-dimensional” characters, which is exactly what he delivers in The Lantern Bearers.
For Scottish literature fans (or for that matter, anyone enamored of film noir, Ingmar Bergman and master Hitchcock), this novel is a must. The story is peppered throughout with Frame’s mordant humor - which appears to be ingrained in most Scottish writers - and is at its best when he takes potshots at the different social classes and the definitions thereof. Put on your thinking cap, make yourself a gin and tonic, and prepare to wander through Frame’s intellectual maze.