This ranks up there with the best books I have ever read. The ending is so full of tension that it made me miss whole paragraphs in my anxiety to find out what had happened. I had to go back and read some parts a second time. This will not speak to everyone, but it spoke to me. It whispered and it shouted and I loved every minute of it.
Lanny is full of mythology and folklore. At the centre are two characters, a little boy called Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort, the modern-day embodiment of the Green Man, the forest dwelling wildman of ghost stories and ways to frighten children to bed. The little boy is exceptional; creative, magical and sometimes terrifying in his ability to vanish from right next to his parents. He collects shells and rocks, moss and sticks, and anything that interests him, takes it home and labels it, writes stories and a little books of spells. In this way Lanny comes to the attention of Dead Papa Toothwort.
I love the way that Max Porter has recreated this figure of mediaeval myth. He is no longer out there living in the woods, he in the drains, the electricity and the bathwater, in the beer pumps at the pub, the school books and the church bell. He “divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom”. Not so much a being as a presence, a smell on the wind or breath in the air. This is the Green Man re-imagined for the 21st Century, with all its technologies and Marvel movies.
Little Lanny is so creative that his parents allow him to have art lessons with Pete, Mad Pete people call him, local artist, celebrity artist even, with a studio full of sculptures of reassembled bird skeletons covered in gold leaf. The two form a bond, a recognition of each other’s otherness. You can feel the happiness of the family and their life in the village.
All this is beautifully written. Stunning descriptions and inventive too. Dead Papa Toothwort listens to the village, rather like listening to the village in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. It speaks to him, but the lines are muddled together, sprawling across the pages in lines that snake and curve and flow outside the margins of the pages. These become so confused that eventually some are printed over the top of others, blurring what is said. Unique, perhaps. I have certainly never seen it before.
There are three sections to the book, and once you turn the pages into the second section, the whole book changes. I don’t want to say too much about what happens in that second half, in case I spoil anyone’s enjoyment.
I’ll leave you with a hint from Dead Papa Toothwort:
“He whistlers his song, and the song is a set of private instructions…
He has done this before but never with such sincerity. He means this terrible thing. He’s meant it forever. He makes a once-in-a-century effort, whistling his dream into being, setting the village up for its big moment. By the time he gets to the edge of the woods he has crumpled into nothing more than a whiff or a suggestion, he is only silent warm crepuscular danger, and the badgers and the owls have seen this before, and they know not to greet him.”
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Faber and Faber, RRP $30