‘In Came the Sound of a Song, Warm on his creaturely Breath….’
Illustration by Rosie Sluggett
Not far from London, in an unnamed sleepy English village, Max Porter invites us to step into his enchanting folk tale about a boy and an ancient tree. The titular character of this novel is ‘Lanny’, a young and imaginative green-eyed boy painfully out of place in the insular world of his village. We see him through the eyes of fellow outsider and famous artist Peter Blythe or, as he is commonly referred to, ‘mad Pete’. We are further accompanied by ‘Lanny’s Mum,’ currently in the process of writing a particularly violent crime novel, and ‘Lanny’s Dad’, caught between the finance industry and the magical imagination of his son.
Cover of Lanny by Max Porter (Graywolf Press, 2019)
This trio of intimate soliloquies is accompanied by the eerie chorus of the voices of the village community, past and present, young and old, scattered across the page in typography that wanders through the village woods alongside its speakers:
‘gazing up at the sky like she can’t bear the sight of us’
‘we don’t welcome hobbyists Malcom’
All of this ominously unfolds under the watchful eye of ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’, named after a rare breed of flowering plant which feasts on other plants because it has no chlorophyll of its own. In this novel, like the reader, Toothwort also seems to feed off the fragments of village life. However, it is the colourful life of Lanny, full of ‘bean-plant grace’, that Toothwort takes a special interest in. The formal inventiveness of the novel captures the unbounded ingenuity of the unusual child it revolves around. Like the parasitic toothwort, the plot thickens and flourishes.
Under mounting pressure, the village community begins to reveal the cracks beneath this idyllic country life. Suspicion and accusations take hold, the police and the national newspapers become involved. Suddenly, the quiet village is thrust onto the centre stage of contemporary Britain. Voices become louder, beginning to overcrowd each other quite literally on the page. Then, like any other good folk tale, Porter ends with a satisfying and moralising ending. What we are ultimately left with is hope through this powerful example of the mythic force of writing.