Saturday, 18 May 2019


Lanny by Max Porter   {Reviewed by STELLA}
Lanny is an exquisite novel. You are immersed from the beginning (and I read this in a single sitting), the voice of Dead Papa Toothwort opening the past and present to the reader’s eyes. An ancient being, a force, a mythical creature, Dead Papa Toothwort is threatening and ambiguous, is present in the surroundings (in the earth and air) and, later we realise, in each of the villagers. This story is set in a village - a commuter trip from London. It is the story of a young boy, Lanny, and his disappearance. Lanny lives with his mother Jolie, a writer of grisly revenge crime novels, and his father Robert, a financial advisor working in corporate London. Lanny is unusual, creative and playful - a child of about eight who is fascinated by nature, loves ideas, and has an active imagination. Also living in the village is an artist, Pete, rather famous but now at the end of his career, nicknamed by his neighbours as ‘Mad Pete”. Art lessons with Pete are a wondrous thing for Lanny, and the two find solace in each other’s way of seeing the world and of being misfits. The book is split into three parts. In the first, we are introduced to our cast of players, their voices distinct and their desires articulated. Dead Papa Toothwort’s desire to take something living. His fascination with being within others and objects as he flits from one to the other is lyrical and sprightly while at the same time surrounding us with decay and darkness. Lanny’s Mum’s suffocation at the hand of village life and her cynicism will strike chords with trapped parents anywhere, while her description of her latest plots might make your skin crawl. Robert, pretty much the lousy father and unhappy husband, uncomfortable about his son’s oddness and more concerned with social status, is a familiar trope. And the other major voice in this novel is Pete, curious and generous but no hero. We only know Lanny through the eyes and ears of these characters, what they feel and describe, and their conversations and interactions with this child. In the second part, the style and pace change. The lines are fraught with urgency: Lanny has disappeared and he must be found. Here, the world of the village is laid bare in all its hypocrisy, prejudice and pettiness. The police arrest Pete and the villagers jump to conclusions supported by their small-mindedness. Old Peggy (our sage) directs her conversation directly to Dead Papa Toothwort, calling him out, but is disinclined to help the frantic Jolie - why does she dislike her so much? Both Robert and Jolie are understandably distraught, yet they both start imagining life without Lanny. Porter reveals the cruelty and tenderness of people with directness and spareness. The language is lean and taut but also encapsulates a lyricism that is melodic in parts but staccato and punchy when necessary. The final and third part of the novel is a dream-like sequence starring Pete, Robert and Jolie, an attempt to reveal Lanny’s whereabouts or to mystify us further. This is a novel to be immersed in, to re-read and think about, to appreciate the beauty of the language and the assuredness of the prose. A must for your reading pile this winter.  

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