“Unlike anything else” – Treacle Walker by Alan Garner #bookerlonglist2022

IMG_2022-7-25-201935Alan Garner was one of the first authors I ever read (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, I was 8 or 9, the book had already been published about 20 years at that point). Here I am some 40 years later myself and Alan Garner is still publishing books every bit is weird and unusual as he did back then.

Treacle Walker concerns a boy called Joseph Coppeck who lives in a house (apparently on his own). Distracted from his comics and his marbles by the presence of a rag and bone man (the eponymous Treacle Walker), Joseph exchanges his pyjamas and an old lamb bone for a jar of some kind of unguent and a donkey stone. What’s a donkey stone you might ask? Well, it appears to be a stone the size of a bar of soap with a rudimentary donkey drawn on it.

Joseph has a wonky eye but, after accidentally rubbing a bit of the unguent on it, he appears to be gifted with a sort of twice sight – if he closes his “good” eye he can see things that aren’t there, like woodland that stretches on for miles and, you know, a naked man who lives in the nearby bog. After rubbing his donkey stone on the front step, a handful of characters escape from his comic and get trapped in the mirror in his bedroom. Treacle Man says he has to sort it out…

Now, it may be that brief glimpse of narrative is enough to pique your interest. (It would me.) But this is just the tip of Garner’s proverbial iceberg. Nobody writes like this man. The language here is like nothing else.

“It was a tune with wings, trampling things, tightened strings, boggarts and bogles and brags on their feet; the man in the oak, sickness and fever, that set in long, lasting sleep the whole great world with the sweetness of sound the bone did play.”

You hardly go a page without some odd turn of phrase or another. Scapulimancer. Nidget. Amblyopic. Hurlothrumbo. Lomperhomock. Glamourie. Mirligoes. Crinkum-crankums. Furibund. It’s all a little bit Worzel Gummidge and a little bit Mark E Smith.

“’Joseph Coppock. When thin Amren wakes and cuckoo calls,’ he opened his back and reached inside, ‘look to your dobber.’ He put the glass alley into Joe’s hand and closed the door.”

By the time we reach the dizzying and dazzling climax (where the dobber – a big and beautiful marble – comes into its own), the closest comparator would be the third season of Twin Peaks.

“Then door opens. And it’s me. Stood there and sat in chimney. There’s two of us. Him and me. The same. And I’m frit. More than I’ve ever been.”

There are doubles, there are escapades involving mirrors and alder branches and a mildly ambiguous ending that creates a sort of Dark Tower-esque circularity to the whole. All told, it’s tremendously good, a puzzle you’ll want to go on examining (like a stone with a curious skein to it, something that only flashes in certain lights). I’ve read it three times through this week (it’s a short book) and it’s making me want to read all of the other Alan Garner books I’ve missed. There’s no better recommendation than that in my eyes.

Any Cop?: An absolute barnstormer. Uncanny and unnerving and unlike anything else I’ve read all year.

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