This. This book.
If you were looking for a book that summed up what gets my reading juices going, it would be this one. It contains everything that is wonderful, lyrical, poetic, mythic – and a lot of my reading has focused on that intersection between myth and reality recently: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Circe by Madeline Miller, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater…. – and quintessentially, unashamedly English.
Lanny is by the author of Grief is The Thing with Feathers, and shares much of the same values and lyricism. Like Grief is The Thing with Feathers, Lanny is intensely and painfully personal account of a family facing traumas. In this case, the family is that of Jolie and Robert Lloyd, a former actress and her financier husband, and their son Lanny. It’s not spelled out but it appears that Jolie had some sort of post natal depression which prompted their move to the countryside village which is the heart of the novel.
The village – within commuter distance of London for Robert – where the neighbours are good-hearted and close-ranked and welcoming and dismissive. In such a short book, we still meet characters like Peggy and Mrs Larton as well as Pete, the outsider artist who befriends the Lloyd family. And yet, the voices and rhythms and characters of the village are so vivid! This comes through snippets of conversation and comment contained in … I struggle for the apt word… vignettes perhaps, like these
It is the everyday common rhythm of natural speech – oh so natural and prosaic and vulgar in places – transfigured and lyricised. It is the same magic that steeped the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Throughout the novel, listening to and bearing witness to these snipped moments – especially to Lanny’s voice – is Dead Papa Toothwort, Porter’s Green Man. And he is as glorious a creation as Crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Transformative, fluid, capricious, chimerical, joyous and cranky. And alien and other. He is Puckish and elvish in an ancient and Shakespearean sense rather than a Tolkienesque one. He draws on the same lineage and imagery as The Monster in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. The embedded – embodied – heart of the village, yet a moment out-of-step with it. Just look at the way he is introduced.
He wants to kill things, so he sings. It sounds slow-nothing like tarmac bubbles popping in a heatwave. His grin takes a sticky hour. Cheering up, he chatters in the voice of a cultured fool to the dry papery wings and under-bark underlings, to the marks he left here last year, to the mice and larks, voles and deer, to the quaint memory of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum. He slips through one grim costume after another as he rustles and trickles and cusses his way between trees. He walks a few paces as an engineer in a Day-Glo vest. He takes a step in a dinner suit, then an Anderson shelter, then a tracksuit, then a rusted jeep bonnet, then a leather skirt, but nothing works. He pauses as an exhaust pipe, then squirms into the shape of a rabbit snare, then a pissed-on nettle into pink-strangled lamb. He plucks a blackbird from the sky and cracks open the yellow beak. He peers into the ripped face as if it were a clean pond. He flings the bird across the forest stage, stands up woodlot bare, bushy, and stamps his spalted feet. His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface. He clomps through the wood, wide awake and hungry for his listening.
Is Dead Papa Toothwort life affirming or a threat? Or, simultaneously, as nature often is, both? Is his interest in Lanny Lloyd benevolent or malevolent? Is one of the most wonderful and simple sentences in the book – “Lanny Greentree, you remind me of me” – joyous or sadistic? Certainly, as a green man, a Cernunnos figure, an iconic genius loci – and so much more real than Ben Aaronovitch’s genii loci in the Rivers of London series – he is no stranger to death but rather revels and glories in it as part of life’s cycle as one particularly grim incident with Jolie and a hedgehog attests to. And named after a plant, the toothwort, Lathraea, which is both proto-carnivorous and parasitic, at least according to Wikipedia, is so wonderfully apt as a summary of his character.
Porter does write children wonderfully, particularly Lanny who is himself a little fae, but wonderful and his relationships with his parents are so real – much like the relationships between the children and father in Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Porter can show so much relationship with so few words as when his father says:
I have a drawing by Lanny stuck above my desk. It’s me in a cape, flying above a skyline and it says, ‘Where does Dad go every day? Nobody knows.’
Towards the second part of the book, the novel takes a step towards something a little more like a thriller and detective novel – not unlike Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. But twisted through Porter’s prism and he does something wonderful with the narrative voices – sometimes replaying the same conversation from alternating points of view such as when Jolie knocks on the door of Mrs Larton:
I gazed at the six Neighbourhood Watch stickers and wondered why, when the new stickers arrived each time, Mrs Larton hadn’t unpeeled the old ones. For weight of claim, perhaps. For pride. For proof of historic vigilance. Because she is a dickhead.
She knocked. I peered through the spy-glass at her gormless face and wondered why, when Jolie Lloyd had such pretty features, she hid it with that messy hair. For fashionable reasons, I suppose. Or shyness. To stop her salacious husband seeing her. Because she is foolish.
And other voices that permeate this section: detectives, schoolchildren, neighbours, the pub landlord, drinkers, the Press, Jolie’s agents… and each and every voice is distinctive, unique and convincing. And stitched together by Porter so well that there was no need for any intrusive narrative voice at all to propel the narrative forward. An incredibly risky technique; and reading it was an incredibly writerly experience.
Neither Porter nor Dead Pape Toothwort ever allow themselves to be bound by genre, although both play with it, and the final section of the book continually pulls the rug out from under the reader’s expectations by returning to Peggy to be given the last word and, as she says,
False things, endings. Sustenance for fools and never what they claim to be.
I died the summer after …. My heart stopped, but my body stood holding the gate for a further fifteen minutes. Several people said good afternoon to my cooling corpse. Eventually a light wind toppled me over. I lay on the path for an hour or two until I realised I was free to go, could just up and leave the old carrion Peggy lying on the path.
For a mere 224 pages in the paperback edition, this is a novel – novella? – which will linger and haunt and stay with you, in just the same way as Grief is the Thing with Feathers.
It was, in a word, sublime.
Shut off your computers and stop reading this review. Read the book. Now!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Date: 7th March 2019