A review of The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame (London, 1999)
Masterfully ironic ****
A cleverly constructed but ultimately depressing story about a 14-year-old boy’s involvement with a brilliant composer over a summer holidays spent with a great-aunt in a small, Scottish town in 1962. It is especially fascinating and convincing in its portrayal of the creative process of musical composition.
The characters are all finely drawn, especially the boy protagonist Neil. The intense appeal to him of the glamorous household of the brilliant and sophisticated musician Euan Bone as a relief from his otherwise claustrophobically dull circumstances is utterly convincing. The inference is strong that if only Bone had properly committed himself to Neil’s happiness, the boy’s life could have been almost magically transformed for the better, but instead luck and the selfishness of most of the other characters in the story conspire against him. The pathos of the story is at its greatest in depicting his anguish at being suddenly excluded from the enchanted little world in which he had briefly seen his deepest longings beginning to be answered.
Bone is strongly reminiscent of Benjamin Britten in his genius, his prickly character, his fixation on pubescent boys and his callous manner of dropping them from his life the moment their voices broke and they no longer interested him. However, the redeeming features of Britten’s love for boys are largely missing here. Britten at least invested considerable time and emotion in his boys as long as they retained his interest, and he did much to further their careers. Bone did not. What Neil got out of their friendship was mostly the incidental result of brief acquaintance with inspirational genius rather than anything Bone gave out of love or for the sake of giving.
There is considerable irony in Bone being partially ruined by Neil’s false accusation that he had done something sexual with him. This alleged harm facilitated his downfall at the hands of those with an already-vested interest in it, while contrarily the real harm he had done was in heartlessly rejecting rather than responding to a boy who evidently longed for more intimacy, whether sexual or not. This is why the boy punished him. It was actually entirely fitting that his handling of Neil was his downfall, and doubly ironic that society had completely the wrong end of the stick regarding the rights and wrongs of his conduct.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 23 Oct. 2013.