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28 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:25pm

Max Porter’s Lanny is a story of our fraught relationship to the countryside

By Sarah Ditum

A missing child (the eponymous Lanny); a traumatised village; and a strange, chorus-like narration. Max Porter’s Lanny has rather a lot in common with Jon McGregor’s 2017 Costa-winning Reservoir 13, and like that book, it’s ultimately more a story of our fraught and fragile relationship to the countryside than it is a novel of plot and resolution. But the resemblance isn’t immediately obvious, because first of all Lanny feels like a Max Porter novel – or at any rate, it will do to those who read his lauded but flawed 2015 debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers.

In his new book Porter retains what was strong about its predecessor, and ditches most of the weaker parts. Like Grief, Lanny has an enticing seam of magic realism. Its central figure is Dead Papa Toothwort, a Green Man-esque manifestation who seems to have been alive as long as the village has existed, and who shifts shape as he stalks his grounds. As he stalks, he listens to the chatter of the inhabitants:

He swims in it, he gobbles it up and wraps himself in it, he rubs it all over himself, he pushes it into his holes, he gargles, plays, punctuates and grazes, licks and slurps at the sound of it, wanting it fizzing on his tongue, this place of his.

Another continuity from Grief is the half-poetry style of prose. In Lanny, the technique is refined so that each character speaks in their own register: Dead Papa Toothwort’s mythic and mischievous declaiming, Lanny’s commuter father’s baffled rationality, Lanny’s mother’s more lyrical voice, the gruff and tender speech of Pete, who teaches Lanny art. The formal experimentation is joined by typographic play. As Toothwort eavesdrops on the village, the words he hears veer off at strange angles and overlap each other on the page: “sinister old wackjob, state of that scooter, naff as shit tat”. There’s a charming Mass Observation Project quality to it, although it is also quite hard to read.

Lanny doesn’t narrate any sections himself. Instead, he appears through the words of those around him. An unworldly child, immersed in nature and always singing, he mystifies his father, delights his mother, charms Pete and obsesses Toothwort. To Toothwort, Lanny is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key”. This attraction is ominous. When Lanny disappears at the end of part one, Toothwort seems to be to blame. The description of Lanny’s mother’s sickening realisation that “late” is actually “lost”, the devastation of both parents and the turmoil of the village are all sharply rendered; and the effect on the novel is galvanising.

Lanny is at its best when Lanny isn’t there. Why? Perhaps because Lanny himself is an impossible creature – a manic pixie dreamchild. Grief’s worst quality was a certain sentimentality, which turned Ted Hughes’s vicious trickster Crow into a soppy au pair helping a widower look after his children. In Lanny that tendency is more restrained, and Toothwort himself is a marvellous work of amorality who seems to have emerged whole from folklore. There’s a reference to Lanny reading Tarka the Otter, but Porter’s novel reminded me of another titan of the “animals dying” genre: Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, specifically his unfairly neglected retellings of traditional stories in The Iron Wolf (1980).

The Iron Wolf – perhaps unusually for a children’s book – started with an explanation of the Jungian collective unconscious, and Adams’s theory that stories are a kind of common dream. Porter is in the same realm. His Toothwort, we’re told, is “real if people believe in him… He’s a part of this village and has been for hundreds of years.” Lanny’s mysterious receptiveness makes him a conduit to the mystical spirit of the village represented by Toothwort. That conceit has a pleasing unity, but it also means the streak of twee about Lanny can’t be put aside. It’s integral to the novel’s shape.

The book’s most vivid moment is a shocking one. After Lanny has vanished, his mother remembers a time when he was a baby and she thought he might have died. Standing over what she fleetingly believed was her baby’s corpse, she thought: “It’s over now and you can have your self back… You’ve won sleep and lost fear. No more baby.” It’s a savage sketch of the ambivalence – and exhaustion – that comes with love. And if the purpose of Lanny is to teach us how to love a place in all its beauty and all its pettiness, that maternal spikiness is a more resonant note that the airless purity of the boy hero. 

Max Porter
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure