Books: Sins and songs

Boyd Tonkin admires a Scottish story of childhood torment and treachery
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The Independent Culture
THE POWER of music, and the troubled lives of its servants, has emerged as the major motif of this year's literary fictions. This bitingly intelligent and atmospheric novel stands among the very best of them. It also tells a deeply Scottish tale - of a young soul torn between good and evil impulses, yet unable to recognise which is which.

In 1962, in a prim seaside burgh on the Solway Firth, a gifted composer and his older male lover live and work in a sort of enchanted castle. Their fame and style seem to keep scandal at bay. When 14-year-old Neil arrives in town from Glasgow, and his parents' cracking marriage, to spend a summer with his aunt, he finds himself willingly drawn into this glamorous rebuke to Presbyterian guilt and gloom. Neil's unbroken voice proves a perfect vehicle for a setting of Stevenson's lyrical essay "The Lantern Bearers" that Euan Bone, the Britten-like composer, has in mind.

Frame evokes the bracing excitements of contemporary music with skill and inwardness. (Compare the cheap jeers at modernism in Seth's An Equal Music.) The musician becomes the boy's mentor, but he acts with total propriety. Yet Neil, swept by the hormonal storms of adolescence, still feels attracted to the man.

The novel veers shockingly into tragedy. Neil looses his treble voice, and thus his role. Bitter and confused, he pretends that Bone has seduced him. He also sows distrust between the lovers. Stevenson's essay deals with the dreams of respectable boys who "have longed to knife a man, and maybe done it". Effectively, Neil knifes two men.

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