An Unplanned ManBooker Book Review : Lanny by Max Porter

Lanny, Lanny, Lanny!! Where do I start?

As I tweeted last week Lanny was going to be a ‘read but not review book’. It was going to be the beginning of my personal foray into the ManBooker Long List. It took approximately 15 pages before I abandoned that idea, because Lanny was a book I immediately wanted to talk about, write about and share with as many people as possible. Lanny was a book that excited me and I am not very good at keeping quiet when that happens!

So what is it all about? Allow me to try and explain.

Lanny is set in the present day, in a village within commuter distance from London, a village found in the Doomsday book, the village where Lanny and his parents live.

Lanny’s mum is a former actress, now a writer, who is working on violent crime novels that somehow seem at odds with her personality. Lanny’s father works in the City, one of the village’s many commuters. Wrapped up in his job, he is stressed and feels no real connection to the village or most noticeably to his son. As a couple they are together but feel very separate. There is a sense of disconnect in their relationship and their belief systems, cleverly enhanced by the way Porter presents their individual points of view. Both are given separate sections, each short, each very much a capsule of their own thoughts and feelings, each very different to the next.

And what of Lanny?

Well, Lanny is unusual. He is a creative and sensitive boy. He alone in his family feels a connection to his environment, he alone in his family lives up to his surname Greentree. Wandering the village, Lanny is in touch with the world around him. He has a friendship with Pete, a famous but almost reclusive artist who has taken refuge in the village. Pete is loosely employed to teach Lanny art but their relationship is essentially a meeting of like minded souls; Pete and Lanny understand each other, and they learn from each other,

There is another character at work in this novel, one that is less tangible but no less real or important. Papa Toothwort is the village’s oldest inhabitant. He has seen peace and turmoil, prosperity and famine, and now, after a spell of apparent dormancy, Papa Toothwort has awoken. His legend is woven into the fabric of the village, in it’s history, in its church, but it seems that for many a year now Papa Toothwort has been largely forgotten. As the village has changed and the old traditional ways have receded further into the past Papa Toothwort, a pagan Green Man figure, has slipped further from people’s minds.

But now Papa Toothwort is awakening. The voice of the earth, and the all seeing eye of the village has been disturbed from his slumber. A malevolent force which seems to absorbed the years of abuse inflicted upon the ground Papa Toothwort is a shapeshifter and a trickster, able to get into the homes and sometimes the minds of the villagers. There is a very real sense that Papa Toothwort is here to teach someone a lesson, to claim back a village that has lost it’s sense of self.

And Papa Toothwort feels a connection with Lanny. Is it Lanny’s arrival in the village that has awoken him? Or is it the increasingly insular and distasteful behaviour of the villagers themselves?

The sections in the first part of the book that present Papa Toothwort’s point of view are disordered and fragmented. They are made up of Papa’s own thoughts as he awakes from his slumber, and supplemented by snatches of conversation he hears from around the village. Porter has created soundbites that are authentic and pithy, the like of which we might over hear in any pub, cafe or on any bus. Short bursts and phases they may be but they build a compelling portrait of life in the village. In the beginning they chime as humorous, fragments of gossip and trivia, but as time moves on they become more disordered, disturbed and disturbing.

As Papa Toothwort draws closer the style of his entries become more frantic, the tone of the snatched conversations becomes darker. And we find ourselves asking is Papa Toothwort inherently malicious or is he just a mirror, reflecting the mood and behaviour of the village and it’s inhabitants? Either way there is a terrible inevitability to what happens next.

Lanny is missing.

With this revelation we enter Part 2 of the book and the style changes again. Porter draws us into that terrible world where a child has vanished, where everything is unreal and chaotic. A world where time is precious but it seems to be behaving strangely. A world where judgements are made and false trails are laid. There is a insular, almost claustrophic feeling to the writing, a desperation for the truth and on some level a desperation to be believed.

In the immediate aftermath of Lanny’s disappearance the fragmentation of the village is ever more apparent. Feelings that have been hiding behind doors are openly expressed, as if Lanny’s disappearance has forced barely concealed ill feeling to the surface. When suspicion falls on those closest to Lanny we find ourselves in the paradox of those who understood Lanny least casting their net of judgement.

Part 3 of the novel brings resolution. It is dreamlike in style and flows in an organic way towards it’s conclusion. It is a mark of Porter’s skill as a writer that he has managed to create a book of such seperate styles that work so cohesively. The story of Lanny and his place within in the world is a simple but beautiful one. It is told in an original but entirely fitting way. The writing, it’s style, order and choice of words perfectly reflect the subject matter and personality of this book and it’s protagonist.

Sometimes you read a book and it speaks to you in the first few pages. Sometimes you read a book and you want to recommend it far and wide. Lanny is one of those books. Beautifully crafted, each phase or word placed with care.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Lanny deserves it’s place on the ManBooker Long List, and I am really hoping to see it on the Short List.

Rachel x

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