“Who can have children and not go completely mad?” – Lanny by Max Porter

If you’ve read Grief Is A Thing With Feathers, you’ll be familiar with what seems to be emerging as Porter’s particular terrain: that liminal, uncanny zone where the strange seeps into the familiar, where wilderness and the domestic collide, where grief invokes the wilderness. Lanny’s telling a different story but it’s got the same concerns as its predecessor: family life and the extraordinary.

Lanny himself is the sweet, artistic, curious, fey young son of Jolie (former actress, now a crime writer) and Robert (works in the City). The trio has moved out of London to a small (read: expensive) rural village, where Lanny roams freely after school and takes art lessons from a neighbour, a renowned and reclusive sculptor (Mad Pete to the locals). The narrative’s initially split between a variety of first person accounts (Lanny’s mum, dad and Pete) and the altogether more disturbing voice of Dead Papa Toothwort: a sinister, ancient Green Man figure who drifts about, eavesdropping and spying on the villagers, taking on forms both natural (foliage) and synthetic (discarded litter), and fixating particularly on Lanny. And then, one-third through the book, Lanny disappears. The bulk of the narrative thereafter comprises a cacophony of voices as his parents and everyone else react to his vanishing, as the hunt to find him escalates, and as suspicions and accusations are thrown around; it culminates, finally, in a nightmarish set of fugue-like visions in which Jolie, Robert and Pete come face-to-face with Dead Papa Toothwort himself.

It’s a captivating read: even the typographic playfulness avoids gimmickry. Porter is a master ventriloquist: the shifts in register across age and class and locality and attitude that he captures in both Toothwort’s eavesdropping and the village’s responses to Lanny, Jolie and Robert are utterly convincing. The shift in tone, too, between the lazy meanderings of the first part, and the mass panic arising in the second, is rapid and terrifying: the multivocal barrage of voices switches quickly from derision to accusation to shame; comedy becomes condemnation; once-benign gossip becomes vicious and defensive. This choking density echoes the thick and strangling horror of Toothwort himself as he emerges from the dark undergrowth.

The other triumph here is in Porter’s vision of family life: the book is a uncompromising scrutiny of parenthood. First, the flat-out oddity of living with a human who isn’t you, who you created; here’s Robert, very early on:

‘I sit at work in the city and the thought of him existing a sixty-minute train ride from me, going about his day in the village, carrying his strange brain about, seems completely impossible. […] Who can have children and not go completely mad?’

Later, Porter’s exploring the darker shadows: the bewilderment, the guesswork, the failures and despairs that go unacknowledged until everything turn sour. Jolie, who suffers badly from post-natal depression, remembers the blank relief of thinking the baby had stopped breathing; Robert admits to the hollow core, the solipsism, at the heart of his role as a father, a husband, a friend: ‘None of us actually feel anything for anyone else. It’s all pretend.’ And in her child’s absence, Jolie is overwhelmed:

‘How can we trust anything? How can we trust other people with our children? How can we trust ourselves? How on earth have humans lived in groups? […] I felt that the missing child was the thing we most deserved, the only story left to us’.

It’s not only that, of course: Lanny is also an excoriating look at pettiness and prejudice and judgment and ‘tribulation chasers’; as bleak as it is, it’s still deeply funny, and while Toothwort is an ogre of sorts, he’s nonetheless awesome, in the terrifying-splendour sense – nature is an amoral force in this England, a force beyond our control or comprehension. We live at the mercy of a primal world, and in this novel, only Lanny himself seems to appreciate that.

Any Cop?: A tense, lyrical and sharply funny read. Probably not a good gift for nervous parents.


Valerie O’Riordan

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