Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 224 pages; 2019.
I think I’m going to be seriously out of step with many who read Max Porter’s new book Lanny in that I didn’t fall in love with it. In fact, I’m not even sure I liked it much.
I also had ambivalent feelings about his debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, published in 2015, which went on to win a slew of awards and turned Porter into the next Big Thing.
Lanny is a difficult novel to describe. It’s “experimental” and takes elements of English folklore and mixes it up with a bit of gritty magic realism, a smidgen of horror, a bit of suspense, some poetry and a lot of very middle class themes — of busy Londoners moving to a commuter village, of gossip and innuendo, of concerns about monsters that live among us.
The story, divided into three distinct parts, is told from multiple points of view. It is alive with dialogue, both spoken out loud and interior monologues, but there’s not a speech mark to be seen. Often it is difficult to know exactly who is speaking — but, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter, for the dialogue, mainly in part two, is simply snippits of conversation (and gossip) from a diverse range of village voices, which builds to a noisy crescendo.
That noisy crescendo revolves around the nub of the novel, which is the disappearance of Lanny, a young boy, who is free to roam the village, often singing to himself as he does so.
His mother, Jolie, is a stay-at-home-mum who pens gruesome crime novels, and his father, Robert, has an office job in London and doesn’t much like village life (or his family for that matter). Their parenting is very much “light touch” and they choose to ignore warnings to stay away from “Mad Pete”, the local (famous) artist, whom they hire to teach Lanny painting and drawing.
Of course, the (logical) assumption is that Pete has done something terrible to Lanny, which is why he has disappeared. But even with a water-tight alibi, that’s not how the villagers, or the media, quite see it.
A suspense story
There’s a build up of tension in part two — Where has Lanny gone? What has happened to him? — that makes the novel a proper page-turner. It’s genuinely frightening because it feeds into our greatest fears when children go missing, especially when they are known to be friendly with grown men who live alone.
But for me the resolution was just a bit too kooky for my liking. And while I understand that Porter is tapping into English folklore and the myth of the Green Man (who, in this book, is known as Dead Papa Toothwort), it just didn’t work for me. It felt like it simply gave the author a means to explain what had happened to Lanny without using a more straightforward, conventional narrative.
That said, I’m sure Lanny is going to win literary awards aplenty. It’s already won rave reviews, but this isn’t one of them.