I love this time of year – the announcement of the Booker Longlist signals the onset of Autumn and gives me just the sort of challenge I like. Admittedly, I haven’t actually got round to reading last year’s winner yet, and I can never call it in terms of who should be shortlisted, but I like to think I’d make an excellent Booker judge. I live in hope that one day I’ll be plucked from obscurity and asked to read a shedload of books at top speed. Until then, blogging about them will suffice.
And so to my first Booker review of 2019. By the time I’m getting to write this, we know that Max Porter’s Lanny has not made it to the shortlist. That must be quite some shortlist in that case, because this is such a superbly-written and heart-rending novel.
Porter has woven together a story of mundane and often petty village goings-on with the observations of a dark, Green-Man-Figure, Dead Papa Toothwort, who lurks round the margins of the village, casting a dark shadow over events. Lanny, a young boy with a wonderfully childlike and keen sense of observation, is at the heart of the village and the novel itself. Dead Papa Toothwort is drawn to him too, and the tension in the novel rests on the oppositions between Lanny’s innocence and the darkness of Toothwort. The idea of a dark natural force is very much a part of the traditions of the English countryside, and Porter’s fluid switching of narrators and voices allows for a poetry which roots the novel in a long heritage of rural literature. Placing this dark force in an old village which finds itself becoming part of London’s commuter belt sets the old and the new side by side. Death and decay exist alongside timeless images of fertility and renewal. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem springs to mind as a similar exploration.
Lanny is what parents perhaps hope and fear their child will be – he is marked out from others by his intelligence and curiosity, but he is also different. He is that wonderful combination of naivety and knowingness that small children possess, but this also brings a danger for him in a world where we seek to manage our children’s every move. When events take a dark turn, Porter’s multiple narrative voices captures the fears and sense of drama felt by a community brilliantly.
It might not have made it further down the Booker route, but this is a book that stays with you – it reminded me a little of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 – and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.