Lanny by Max Porter.
A review by Kate O’Brien.
Published by Faber & Faber in 2019, Porter’s Lanny tells an incredibly magnetic story about an artistic boy in a small town. This is a story about many things. It is about art, it is about being connected with nature, it is about small town life, and it is about how fickle human beings can be. Throw in some village lore for good measure, and we’ve got a wonderfully mysterious text that pulls you in deeper with every turn of the page.
Porter’s book caught me by surprise, because I will admit that when I first saw this book when I opened my blind date with a book package, the first thing I said was that I don’t think I would have chosen this book for myself. The cover didn’t do anything for me, it still doesn’t do anything for me, further proof that you should never judge a book by its cover after all. The plain white cover showcases snippets of reviews, all praising the work, while the title Lanny is displayed crookedly on a leave. The cover does not spark curiosity, however the text itself is another story.
Porter is a poetic writer and Lanny is a text that is filled with vivid imagery.
Porter appears to have a knack for describing things that should be mundane in a way that makes them unforgettable. I found that this book was full of quotes that I will remember for a very long time. “His body is a suit of bark-armour with the initials of long-dead teenage lovers carved in the surface.” (Porter, p.4). I read this line, and knew then that I was going to be incredibly moved by this book. Porter had me invested already, and this was only page four.
The style of writing in this book is interesting, as Porter jumps around from different points of view. We see what Lanny’s mum is thinking, and her inner thoughts are introduced with the heading “Lanny’s Mum”. I would say that this text reads as though it is one stream of thought and the inner monologues of each character gives readers a great insight into who these people are. Lanny’s dad is a commuter. He prefers London to the small village that they live in. He is okay at his job, but he is a rather absent father, and while he claims to love his son, it is clear that he does not understand him. Lanny’s mum is a writer, and while she is a much warmer parent who loves her son as he is, it is clear that he is often a mystery to her as well.
Porter also introduces readers to Dead Papa Toothworth, a mysterious entity who lives in the woods and has lived there for years, and years, and years. Dead Papa Toothworth lives off of snippets of other people’s conversations. He goes to the village and listens. He loves to listen to Lanny especially, because Lanny is a much more intuitive child. Dead Papa Toothworth is village lore, and he has become a story that parents use to scare their children. “Be good, or Papa Toothworth will get you.” Little did they know that threats of the bogeyman might one day come true. Papa Toothworth’s sections are wonderfully artistic, as the snippets of the conversations that he listens to swirl around the page, making our eyes dance in order to read every word. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is something that I enjoyed immensely.
Lanny is the book’s heart. He is curious and sensitive, intuitive, and artistic. Lanny seems to be connected to the earth in a way that is unexplainable. He asks questions that seem impossible to answer. He is almost fae like, as he is an all-knowing child. At times, Lanny seems to be an unrealistic child, but this is due to Porter mixing lore with reality. Lanny exists somewhere in the middle.
My favourite character is “Mad” Pete. He is a reclusive, gruff, and talented artist who is friends with Lanny’s mother. In an effort to be less gruff, he agrees to give Lanny art lessons, and he finds that Lanny’s natural artistic abilities, along with the boy’s curiosity leads him to enjoy being an art teacher more than he ever thought he would.
The book is divided into sections. The first section is neat and tidy, and everyone’s point of view is clearly labelled. We know what is happening, and we know who is speaking, and aside from Lanny’s curious questions, the first section is rather uneventful. Lanny goes to art class, Pete enjoys teaching, Lanny’s mum is writing, and she struggles with writing what is a very violent thriller, Lanny’s dad is working. Dead Papa Toothworth is listening. The village gossips, as all small villages tend to do. That is it. It is intriguing, but it is not terribly riveting. However Porter creates a real sense that something is off. Something is going to go wrong, we just don’t know what and we don’t know when.
The latter sections of the book descend into chaos. We no longer know who exactly is speaking, as all the thoughts merge into one, and we get snippets of the village reactions when Lanny goes missing. The book really paints an accurate picture of what happens in tragic cases like this. Everyone has an opinion, everyone is a detective, reporters descend and camp outside, and no one escapes scrutiny. Pete is turned against, as no one believes that an old man could give a boy art lessons just to be nice, Lanny’s mum is scrutinised because of the violent content in her book, both parents are under fire when the papers find out that Lanny often wandered, because he was a curious child, and stories entitled “Latchkey Lanny” are splashed over every front page. Lanny himself does not escape scrutiny as everyone says he was “odd all along.” There is public outcry, for how could this happen in a quiet, sleepy village? Are our children safe anywhere? Do we take safety for granted? It is a tense read, and yet I could not put the book down.
The book ends rather neatly, thankfully Lanny is found alive and well, and he becomes another cautionary tale. The lore of the woods lives on, for the woods will always be there, always as people come and go, as people die and as people are born, the woods have always been there, and they always will be.
I enjoyed this book. It was magnetic, and very engaging, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know. I read the entire book in one afternoon. I am curious to read more of Porter’s work, particularly Grief Is The Thing With Feathers as I knew of this work before reading Lanny but I have not read it yet.
Lanny is a mysterious, artistic text, that weaves lore with small village life. Each sleepy day builds up to an intense search party, and with every turn of the page readers will want to know what happened to Lanny. I’d highly recommend this book if you have not read it already, and I’d highly recommend grabbing one of those blind date with a book packages if you see them in a bookshop near you, as you may discover a great book that you would not have chosen otherwise, just like I did.