Max Porter became known for Grief is the Thing With Feathers, a book which (despite combining two of my favourite book-related subjects, in death & Ted Hughes) has remained shamefully unread on the Kindle. For some reason, I instead picked up his next novel, Lanny, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019.
It’s a story about a boy with a gift for language and for friendship, the product of an ailing (if not failing) marriage – and who becomes good friends with a local artist whose best quasi-celebrity days are behind him. They live in a rural village, and it is this rural community which gives the book its backdrop and some of its magical elements. For overlooking the whole book is Dead Papa Toothwort, a sort of shape-shifting, mystical spirit that inhabits the landscape with seemingly ill intent and malevolent humour.
I enjoyed the sections where Toothwort is overheading snippets of people’s conversations (demonstrated stylistically in the book with italicised half sentences curling off the page), but even more the drama-by-Greek-chorus-meets-gossip-in-the-village-post-office of section 2. It’s very cleverly done, and manages to feel contemporary and inventive but also in a long tradition in which the accretion of viewpoints and details builds drama and tension.
It is that tension which surprised me most – I found the final section genuinely thrilling in its combination of a mythical, elemental force at play with the oft-told tale of parents looking for a missing child. That Porter can sustain this, while also giving real force and depth to the characters, demonstrates why his first two books have been so lauded – and so well-received. This is a darkly fascinating and gripping work.
BUY IT NOW: Lanny: LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019