Lanny by Max Porter

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

Lanny is a book of the imagination and the reader who most enjoys it will have an imagination to match.  Lanny – the eponymous hero – is a young boy living with his parents in a village outside London.  His mother, Jolie, is an emerging crime writer and his father, Robert, ‘works in the city’.  Lanny is a boy with unlimited imagination who is oblivious to the taunts and teasing from other children at his school.  He is, however, in the words of his teacher ‘especially gifted with language’ and ‘has an innate gift for social cohesion’ [12].

The village where Lanny lives is peopled with various ‘characters’ including Dead Papa Toothwort who lived in the village many hundreds of years ago and sleeps in the woods.  He drifts unseen through the village but captures pieces of conversations of the villagers such as ‘I was a schoolteacher so know all about bumped heads’, ‘more ironing then a cuppa’ and ‘pretty in a smudgy kind of way’.  Printed in the book in italics and in curved lines, the words give a visual expression to the concept of the thoughts and words floating through the air and being caught by Dead Papa Toothwort as he traverses his village.

This technique is used again to great effect towards the end of the novel when the village is faced with the disappearance of Lanny.

Other characters include Pete – a well-known and rather eccentric painter who has retired to the village – who is asked by Lanny’s mother to give him art lessons.   This innocent relationship is later [wrongly] perceived by some as a more sinister one.  There is Peggy – the ancient town gossip – who doesn’t let anyone pass her door without a thorough interrogation; and Jean Coombe who ‘wears a Santa costume every day of the year and carries a golf club in her wicker basket’ [39].

The novel is divided into three parts – the first two refer to the immediate before and after of the disappearance of Lanny.  None of the parts has chapters in the usual sense but, instead, in the first part, sections headed ‘Pete’, ‘Lanny’s dad’, ‘Lanny’s mum’ and ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ depending on whom is speaking or thinking.  Dead Papa’s sections are in bold type to give greater emphasis to his role in the novel. 

The second part of the book comprises a series of paragraphs reflecting the thoughts and conversations of the villagers as they respond to the disappearance of Lanny and the subsequent police investigation.  In these paragraphs, the author skilfully and creatively captures the emerging – and sometimes prejudiced and harmful – thoughts about Lanny’s disappearance such as:

He is sex slave in Saudi Arabia.  He is in a bag of builder’s rubble at the mossy bottom of Dudley Canal.  She said being this close to the drama is a dream come true and she kind of hopes it doesn’t end.  I thought he was a right little knob skipping about like he was a fairy princess, but you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, should you?

The third part artfully explores the disorganised and slightly manic thinking of Lanny’s parents as they struggle with his disappearance and its effects on their relationship and trust for each other.  The following third-person thoughts of Lanny’s mum capture the confused thinking of someone under great strain – She seems to be back in real life, or she has woken up, or she is alive, or she is no longer having a nightmare. [189]

But the final words of the novel are articulated by Peggy – ‘I died the summer after they pulled Lanny out of the drain in Hatchett Wood. … When asked, he tells a simple story: He fell, he slept, he was scared; he survived because of a rucksack of snacks’. [207]

Lanny celebrates difference and imagination.  Max Porter has written a story which challenges the traditional structure and form of the novel and creates characters which seem not entirely of this world – and one or two are clearly not.  The novel reinforces that sense of other-worldliness by its free form and style.   Lanny is a book which demands close reading to fully appreciate its originality.

Lanny is the second novel by Max Porter; his first book Grief is the Thing with Feathers won the Sunday Times/Peters, Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year and the International Dylan Thomas Prize.  Lanny was long-listed for the 2019 Man Booker Prize.  Max Porter lives in Bath with his family.

Lanny

by Max Porter

[2019]

Faber

ISBN 978 0 571 34028 6

224pp; $27.99

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