Author: Max Porter
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Reviewer: Stephen Keim
I have a friend who, for no good reason except that she knows that I like to read, drops off four excellent new books at my chambers. I have no obligation to repay my friend except by reading the books and enjoying them. With Lanny, I have done something to expiate my growing moral indebtedness.
Lanny is also a source of brownie points for me on the home front. Lanny is a novel and I, famously, never read novels and, oh so unfairly, suffer moral ignominy for my narrow (non-fiction) choices when it comes to discretionary reading.
The action in Lanny takes place in an ancient village, come commuter town, an hour out of London.
Lanny of the title is an unusual child. His mother writes murder mysteries. His father works in the city and exhibits many of the undesirable personality traits of men who work in the city.
Lanny’s Dad’s line manager refers to Lanny as mad as a March hare which annoys Lanny’s Dad who realises, nonetheless, that it is he who has transmitted such perceptions to his boss. Lanny’s unusual qualities are such that words can only hint at them. The school report says that Lanny has an innate gift for social cohesion and will calm a fraught classroom with a single well-timed joke or song.
Lanny is calm and unhurried and comes in with the sound of a song on his creaturely breath, stinking of pine trees and other nice things. Lanny is, no doubt, smart for one so young but his knowledge is as much attributable to connections and understanding of the deeper magic as it is to intelligence and learning.
Pete is a once, and still, famous avant garde artist from decades earlier who applies his trade, quietly, in the village. Pete and Lanny’s mother appreciate one another and Pete, at first reluctantly, agrees to give Lanny some art lessons. And a deep bond is formed between the old artist and the knowing child.
Peggy is the old mad witch of the village. She understands, better than anybody, Lanny’s unusual ability to connect.
The narrative of Lanny is told in the voices of the characters. We don’t hear about the characters. We hear from each of the characters. We hear what they think including about one another.
Befitting an ancient village, the town has its own haunting, its own local god or saint in the form of a shape shifting, mood changing Dead Papa Toothwort. As Toothwort moves around and through the village, he overhears the townspeople speaking and, like the pub closing scene in part II of The Waste Land, the ordinary voices of the town scatter across the page and catches of tawdry temporary dramas of daily life are glimpsed before fading and giving way to the next.
Porter, born in High Wycombe, was formerly a book seller and an editor having been editorial director at Granta and Portobello Books until 2019. His debut novel, Grief is a Thing with Feathers, was a huge success in 2015 and he published The Death of Francis Bacon in 2021. Lanny was released in 2019. Lanny is described as a book about a family who lives in a village peopled by the living and the dead. In this respect, it resembles Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Padramo. It may equally be said that every town and every locality is haunted by what has taken place there. We rely on novels like Lanny to remind us of this deeper truth.
The lyrical music of the competing voices telling their respective points of view becomes stretched and frantic as mystery descends upon Lanny’s village; relationships fray and are tested; and tragedy beckons. What does the deeper magic allow the living? What has Toothwort done? Do the ancient verities offer any mercy?
Lanny is a beautiful novel and comes highly recommended by this reviewer.
25 May 2022