So, we’re at the start of the new month and I’m telling myself that I’ll make more time for reading in May. I was so close to not finishing my monthly reading challenge again and was reading Lanny right up to the last minute. I had such high hopes for myself. It was such a short read that I even thought I’d manage to fit another book in before the end of the month. That clearly didn’t happen and I found myself on a mad dash to get the last few pages in before April 30th was over. I just about managed it and crossed off my final letter of the month. I had wanted to read this book for ages, so I do kind of wish that I’d read it at a better time. I’ll probably have to go back at some point and give it the time it deserves. Maybe I’ll even try the audiobook. I’d be interested to see how they handle it. But for now, I’ve got to try and get my thoughts together to writer this damn review.
It’s really tricky to review a Max Porter book. He’s got such a unique perspective and voice that it’s hard to really know how you feel about them let alone sum them up. The follow-up to his debut novel, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, is another glorious mix of prose and poetry that will leave you feeling perplexed but mesmerised. He manages to channel old English folklore and the magic that lies behind them. It captures a specific type of mysticism and manages to blend literary traditions with a very contemporary style. It’s a brilliant thing and, if you’re willing to give it a chance, it has an awful lot to offer a reader.
The basic story is one of a missing boy, Lanny. He is something of an oddity in the quaint little village he lives in with his parents. Lanny prefers to spend his time alone and wandering through his rural surroundings. He enjoys building dens and communing with nature. He is unlike anything that the village has ever seen and they have difficulty accepting him. Hell, even his own father had difficulty accepting him. The two people who appreciate Lanny for who he is are his loving mother and the local eccentric artist, Mad Pete. When Lanny goes missing one evening, the whole village begins to fear the worst and it’s not long before the accusations start flying. But there is something else going on that might explain the boy’s sudden disappearance and it has something to do with Dead Papa Toothwort.
Dead Papa Toothwort is the spirit who resides in the village. He is an ancient trickster who watches over every little thing that the residents are up to. Toothwort is a constant presence throughout the book and he clearly has a keen interest in Lanny. Like every good being in folklore, Toothwort can shapeshift and has a wicked sense of humour. In nature, toothwort is parasitic and grow on the roots of certain trees. Once believed to be carnivorous, Toothwort has no chlorophyll and receives its nutrients from other plants. It relies on the natural world around it to survive and flourish. Just like the plant, Dead Papa Toothwort has rooted himself in village life and occasionally takes what he needs from them. It is through him that we can read conversation fragments from around the village. He is our eye and ears to all of the local gossip and he enjoys nothing more than feasting on everything he comes across.
Porter has created great depth in his modern rural community. It is a place where magic and reality fuse beautifully. It is the kind of place where suspicion and prejudice win out and anyone different is not trusted. When tragedy strikes, the residents close ranks and look to the outsiders with intolerance. There is a brief moment in this book when it looks as though Porter is taking us down the traditional crime thriller road. Where he teasingly leads us to believe that we will be investigating a disappearance and a possible murder. However, things are never going to be that simple in a Max Porter story. Instead, we weave in and out of reality and fantasy. Dead Papa Toothwort stalks the village with glee as Lanny’s frantic loved ones desperately trying to find him.
Porter is a writer who likes to take a risk and is willing to experiment. The narrative takes some odd and unusual turns as the story plays out. There are moments when the whole book risks falling in on itself but, somehow, it comes together in the end. As someone who loved Grief is the Thing With Feathers, I had high expectations for this book. I’m not sure that it completely lived up to its predecessor and I think some of the key moments aren’t as successful as they should have been. The end of Lanny’s tale isn’t quite as strong as it needed to be and become just a bit too quirky for their own good. However, for the majority of the book, this strangeness works incredibly well.
As his debut book dealt with grief, Lanny has key things to say about environmentalism, parenthood and childhood. He uses his beautiful writing to evoke such strong and mixed emotions that you won’t be sure what you’re experiencing. Reading this book is an incredibly tactile experience as well as a visual one. The way the text is formatted adds to the mood and tension. The use of repetition and rhythm give the story a very traditional feel. This is modern folklore. This is mythology as reimagined for a modern reader. It’s exciting and original. Porter understands his setting and the deep history that exists in these rural communities. He has created something magical and real. Something terrible but beautiful. You don’t just read this book but you experience every part of it. It’s astonishing.