An introspective young boy, Joseph Coppock squints at the world with his lazy eye. Living alone in an old house, he reads comics, collects birds’ eggs and plays with his marbles. When, one day, a rag-and-bone man called Treacle Walker appears, exchanging an empty jar of a cure-all medicine and a donkey stone for a pair of Joseph’s pyjamas and a lamb’s shoulder blade, a mysterious friendship develops between them.
A fusion of myth, magic and the stories we make for ourselves, Treacle Walker is an extraordinary novel from one of our greatest living writers.
There are some novels that offer up their meaning on a platter. It is explicit, clear. Sometimes, they take a little work. Obviously, there are also many books with no esoteric meaning as such but just cracking good plots, and I love them just as much.
However, occasionally – and this takes a rare courage from an author – the meaning is there, it is present, but it is somehow intangible and ephemeral. However hard you try to reach for it, it slips through your fingers like Anchises’ shade slipping through his son’s finger in The Aeneid
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.
And this was how I felt reading Treacle Walker – it was redolent with meaning, but I’m not sure I could fully grasp it. The story is – for all of the clarity of each and every sentence – folkloric, mythic, dreamlike. Very little makes sense; everything seems potent.
The book opens with Joseph Coppock, an elusive character himself even if he is our main point of view/ He seems to be a child, reading a comic, but seems solitary and isolated with no parents of any kind around – even though he appears to have been taken for some form of medical appointment for his lazy eye. There is a train that passes at midday, christened Noony, but no other apparent way of telling the time. And there is no one around: from the opening page we are told
He could see no one in Barn Croft or Pool Field or Big Meadow or on the track between the top and bottom gates.
In fact, we only have two other characters in the story: the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, whose call “Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!” is our introduction to the world of the novel; and Thin Amren, a naked man who inhabits the marshes and to whom a cuckoo leads Joe.
The plot opens with a typically folkloric event: Treacle Walker offers Joe an exchange of items. In exchange for an old pair of pyjamas and a lamb’s shoulderblade (a rag and a bone), Joe is given the chance to choose from Treacle Walker’s chest full of cups, saucers, platters, jugs all of which seem to be worth more than the pajamas. Choosing an item that reveals your nature – all very Merchant of Venice and pregnant with symbolism. What does young Joe choose? The smallest, least thing there: an old jar of Poor Man’s Friend, a medicinal ointment “prepared only by Beach & Barnicott, successors to the late Dr. Roberts, Bridport”. Having lived in Bridport, walked along Dr Roberts Close and supped in the Beach & Barnicott pub, I felt a certain kinship here!
We learn through Thin Amren that Joe’s lazy eye is not a medical condition, but a glamourie, a second sight, allowing him to see an other world. Characters from Joe’s comic book, Knockout, leap from the confines of the page and the frame, Stonehenge Kit and his enemies Whizzy the Wizard and the Brit Bashers chasing each other around the ‘real’ world and into mirrors. Marbles and Joe’s prize dobber in particular falling into the comic. The donkey stone that bears Joe’s name one moment, but it is gone the next because “Why should you [see it], once you know?”
“Time is ignorance” is the epigraph of the novel – and time is perhaps at the heart of the novel. It is – and I keep returning to the simile – dreamlike in its modernity (albeit never quite feeling more modern that the forties or fifties) and its antiquity, its industrial and pastoral. As if this world in the novel is one outside of time itself… and I’m not sure I understand enough about time and physics and quantum theory – I was intrigued but baffled by an episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage on time! – but I feel echoes of that played out here somehow…
The book is bonkers and beautiful and thoughtful and clever without trumpetting its own cleverness. It is also a tiny book for the Booker Longlist and were I to say much more I would fear to spoil it. It is an extraordinary read!
Plot / Pace:
4th August 2022