Second books, much like second albums, can be tricky to create. And if your first piece won a bouquet of prizes, including the Sunday Times Writer of the Year and the International Dylan Thomas Prize, then it’s difficult to imagine how one would even get started. Yet, Porter did start, and his new novel Lanny, is wondrous and mysterious.
In many ways the novel seems like a fable, with the opening passage told by the spirit of the English countryside, Dead Papa Toothwort. Brooding and plotting, he seems far from those fairies we see frolicing around the pages of Enid Blyton; this character instead slithers throughout his land, listening in on the conversations of others and flitting in and out of the bodies of woodland creatures. The way these conversations manifest themselves on paper is a little jarring at first, or at least tacky in a sense. It seems somewhat reminiscent of primary-school books to have the font swirling around the page, although soon it melds into normality and it seems more appropriate for the context.
After several instances of meeting these interjections however, it does become apparent that these overheard snippets, whilst well-written and fascinating, are however mainly irrelevant to the plot (the only somewhat useful snippet in the excerpt above would be “trust him with your kid”, as readers will know, and yet that hardly illuminates the plot anymore than if it hadn’t been read at all). So, in terms of being a plot device, although it is interesting and inventive, I tended to skip over it in the latter part of the book simply because it didn’t seem that useful.
But back to Toothwort, he (or it,) has this bond with a small boy in a village, a boy whom everyone finds a little strange, a little queer, a little dazed, perhaps: Lanny. And so the novel, told through multiple perspectives, chronicles the life of Lanny as he starts to take outdoor art lessons with a famous artist from the village, and the way that relationship pans out. The multiple points of view interestingly became less distinct from each other as the book wore on: at the start of the novel Lanny’s mum had her perspective recounted in verse and then (for a reason I cannot find, but if you can please let me know) she starts to think in prose like the others characters. The same can be said for the others- they all seemed to blend into one after a while, aside from a few idiosyncratic remarks.
But what makes Lanny such an impactful read is something else; it’s the portrayal of outsiders. Both Lanny and the artist, Pete, are essentially alone. They are misunderstood and shunned by others in the isolated village community, and it is the way as the book progresses that they are peeled apart and broken down in their individual ways which is so touching. This of course resonates with a contemporary audience because who doesn’t feel alone in a world where relationships are strengthened by talking through devices, whilst sitting in a room on your own? There is a sense of loneliness in all of us, and Porter truly does tap into that with his mythic, rustic tale.