Alan Garner has become the oldest writer to be nominated for The Booker Prize with his latest novel, Treacle Walker. Laura Venning writes that his strange and wonderful books have delighted generations and would make him a worthy winner.
Alan Garner became the oldest author ever to be shortlisted for The Booker Prize this year for his small but mighty novel Treacle Walker. The Booker Prize is presented on October 17, which also happens to be Garner’s 88th birthday, a coincidence that feels a little magical in and of itself. Treacle Walker, a dreamlike fable about a convalescent boy named Joseph, a rag-and-bone man, and a bog-dwelling spirit, is a characteristically cryptic tale of a child threatened by dark forces, a meditation on time and mortality, and a vivid example of folk horror. “If the rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, and dens of Britain had a voice, it would sound like Alan Garner telling a story,” Philip Pullman said of Garner. “unquestionably the great originator, the most important British fantasy writer since Tolkien.”
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Garner’s stories are more unwieldy and difficult to categorise than others in British literature, fusing myth and modernity in tales of magic and the power of nature. Treacle Walker enjoys the prestige of literary fiction, but if you go to any bookstore and look for a copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Owl Service (1967), or Red Shift (1973), you’re just as likely to find it among the children’s books as the adult science fiction or fantasy sections. “Alan Garner’s approach is very different to that of the children’s writers he’s often bracketed with,” says Tim Worthington, a writer and broadcaster who recorded the commentary for the rerelease of The Owl Service TV adaptation, to BBC Culture. Garner’s novels subvert the rules of fantasy, offering very little in terms of expository “world-building,” eschewing the traditional “hero’s journey” structure used by the likes of CS Lewis and Tolkien. According to Worthington, magic “always creeps uninvited into ordinary people’s lives, with a timeless sense.”
Garner has a natural interest in physics and astronomy due to his proximity to the enormous telescope and observatory at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, and a desire to defy conventional time and space is evident in all of Garner’s work. In his first children’s book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, siblings Colin and Susan are drawn into a mythic battle between good and evil, children in a bombed-out Manchester discover a portal to another world in Elidor (1965), and three teenagers are doomed to reenact a mediaeval Welsh legend of infidelity, transformation, and bloodshed in The Owl Service. Red Shift goes so far as to include three interconnected stories set in three different time periods: the 1970s, the English Civil War, and Roman times.
Erica Wagner, literary critic and editor of First Light, a commemorative anthology of essays on Garner, believes Garner’s experimental use of time is a key component of his appeal. “The epigraph of Treacle Walker by physicist Carlo Rovelli: ‘Time is ignorance,’ could be applied to so many of Alan Garner’s books, demonstrating that chronological time is only one way of perceiving our world, and not always the most useful one,” Wagner tells BBC Culture. Treacle Walker is set in an ambiguous time in the mid-20th century, with the characters’ only constant marker of time being a train that passes by the house every day. As young Joseph Coppock is visited by ancient presences, cracks appear between the past and the present. and is enveloped in a parallel mirror-world in which he is literally confronted with himself. There is no linear time in this world; the past, present, and future move in a circle with no clear resolution.
Treacle Walker is fantastic. I mean it literally: a fable, a fairy tale, one of the best of its kind – Erica Wagner
Treacle Walker, as abstract as it is at times, also feels rooted in the real landscape and its real history. Treacle Walker, the rag-and-bone man, is based on a real person, a wandering tramp who went by the moniker and claimed to be able to cure everything except jealousy. Thin Amren is a creature that emerges from the marshes, and is clearly a reference to real archaeological finds of “bog bodies,” corpses mummified by peat over thousands of years. Joe possesses a number of magical objects, all imbued with a sense of history, ranging from a stone carved with a horse to a comic that comes to life, featuring Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit. Garner’s use of language is intensely atmospheric, and he is a skilled conjurer of visions, sounds, and textures that must be felt rather than read, and which are frequently deeply unsettling.
A haunted country
Garner was born in 1934 in Cheshire to a working-class family with a long tradition of storytelling. He grew up in Alderley Edge, a Cheshire village at the base of a steep red sandstone escarpment known as The Edge. Alderley Edge, now one of Britain’s wealthiest villages, is also a place steeped in legend. Garner was captivated as a child by the local legend of a wizard and an army of knights sleeping in a cavern beneath the Edge, who would awaken to defend England in its hour of need. Garner’s psyche was deeply influenced by the story, which influenced not only his first children’s novel, but his entire writing career. His childhood was also marked by bouts of illness and near-death experiences from diphtheria, meningitis, and pneumonia. Treacle Walker is about a sick child, and The Owl Service begins with teenage Alison in her sick bed, gazing at the ceiling, becoming enchanted by the powerful forces hidden within the walls.
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