‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

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.

Experimental style

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.

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15 thoughts on “‘Lanny’ by Max Porter

    • I bought this on a whim when it was freshly published — Waterstone’s had stocked it high and I fell for the sales patter! I was told it was an “amaaaaaazing” book by one of the staffers, which just goes to show I should stick to my trusted blogger sources for recommendations, not booksellers I don’t know!

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  1. Thanks Kim, I generally chime with your recommendations so will leave this for now-and park it on my charity shop browsing list.

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    • Please don’t let me put you off… I didn’t much enjoy this one but appreciated the writing and the concept, you may well love it. But yes, if in doubt borrow don’t buy.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I guess the good thing about Lanny is that it’s very short and easily read in a couple of hours, so while I didn’t much like it at least I didn’t waste a lot of time on it 😀

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    • He’s obviously a writer interested in folklore… I’ve written my fair share of bits on English folklore for one of the magazines I used to work on, so maybe I could see what he was doing?

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  2. Yeah, Lanny’s an interesting experiment, but to me it just felt a bit pointless. Grief… at least struck me as more purposeful.

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  3. I bought Grief… when it came out based on the rave reviews and, though I tried a couple of times, just couldn’t get into it – it all seemed a bit pretentious. So I didn’t even bother with Lanny until its Booker longlisting. Anyway, I just finished it (only started it this morning) and I liked it a lot. I think there is a lot of stylistic gimmickry (the looping lines of type in the Dead Papa Toothwort sections) that doesn’t really add much, but the story at its heart is lovely. It reminded me a bit of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 in its chorus of voices when Lanny goes missing, but most of all, in its blending of myth and realism and the characters of Lanny, Pete and Papa Toothwort, it reminded me strongly of Vanessa Gebbie’s The Coward’s Tale, one of my favourite novels of recent years. Not a perfect book (I agree with your assessment of the ending being a bit ‘kooky’) but one I definitely hope makes the Booker shortlist, even if I’m hoping there are even better books on the longlist (so far I’ve only read Frankissstein, which I liked up to a point but had problems with, and Lost Children Archive, which is another strong contender).

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