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Another puzzle from Max Porter

Max Porter’s books are wonderfully strange things. They are novels, but occasionally seem to wander into the realm of poetry. The language is sparse, distilled down to the very essence of what he wants to communicate. The sentences twist and turn; literally, in this case. The first few pages of his new book were incomprehensible to me, but somehow Porter lures you in and doesn’t let you go. Lanny by Max Porter is set in a quintessential English village, where Lanny, an exceptionally creative, talented boy, his banker dad and author mum have just moved. But becoming part of this closed community is not a smooth ride. I’m not sure I liked Lanny as much as Porter’s first book, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which I loved, but still think it’s a worthwhile read.

‘Mad’ Pete, a successful local artist in his 80s, throws the family a lifeline and agrees to give Lanny art lessons. A beautifully described relationship ensues, my favourite part of the book, and where I think Porter really excels, in his depiction of children. We can’t help but fall in love with Lanny and when something happens to him, it’s all the more upsetting.

In the background hovers Dead Papa Toothwort, a bad omen with an Arcimboldo-like appearance – ‘bushy oak-leaf eyebrows’, ‘ivy hair and wheatsheaf beard’. The kind that nightmares are made out of.

Dead Papa Toothwort lies underneath a nineteenth century vicar’s wife and fiddles with the roots of a yew in her pelvis. He loves the graveyard.

Toothwort is the community’s collective memory and bringer of bad luck, he’s been around since time immemorial, he listens in on every conversation, spies on people and develops an obsession with Lanny.

Lanny’s incident reveals the true face of the little community as rumours and suspicion circulate. It also puts on trial the value of friendships between adults and children and the inevitability of the collective history that connects any community.

Just like Grief is the Thing With Feathers, this book won’t be for everyone. Porter’s books are a bit like puzzles. Incomprehensible in the beginning, until you’ve stared at it for a while and everything starts to fall into place. Unless you enjoy that, don’t bother, but if you do, I suspect you’ll feel like I did once I’d finished the book. I wanted to read it again to get even more out of it.

Lanny by Max Porter is published by Faber & Faber, 224 pages.

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