Tag Archives: Dead Papa Toothwort

Lanny by Max Porter

My friend texted me:

I finished Lanny. Embarrassingly it brought me to tears on the Eurostar. It’s wonderful, ie full of wonder.

This is a wonderful and a strange book, strange title, strange typography and a strange cover like severed card, stylish, but strange. Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the thing with feathers, was also strange, but in a different way. That first novel had a lot of white spaces, a misquotation from Emily Dickinson as the title, and a focus on Ted Hughes and a Crow.

In his second novel, Lanny, Max Porter also considers loss and nature, but in a completely different way. Lanny is a boy liked by everyone who lives in a village in commuting distance of London. When Lanny goes missing everyone is distressed.

The Story

The story is told in three parts, each structured differently. Throughout the novel villagers’ overheard comments are spread about the pages, like worms or threads. This is the everyday noise, complaints, comments, gossip of village life.

In the first part several villagers speak, mostly about Lanny, a young boy whom everyone likes, and who seems to have an affinity for nature. Dead Papa Toothwort, a kind of Green Man, is also out and about in the village. Lanny’s mother asks an artist, Pete, to give Lanny art lessons every week, although Pete sees it more as two observers sharing what they see. 

In the second part, everything is much more urgent, less signposted. Lanny has gone missing, and everyone is suspected. Pete, his father; his mother, everyone in the village. Lanny has represented some kind of hope for them all and now that is endangered.

In the third part, as if in a dream, the story comes to a conclusion and village life returns to its more even pulse. Everyone is wiser and some characters are dead. We have seen the village torn apart by the fear of the unknown. And healed by patience and grace.

The writing is lyrical, and each voice has its own rhythm and tone.

Pete: My father would have me count his coppers on a Sunday morning. Memory swings like a hard dirt rudder then slips up with a boom and a crack and catches the wind. (38)

Lanny’s Dad: I woke up fists clenched and buzzing, certain of someone downstairs. Someone in the house. I used to get this a lot, but I’m more accustomed to the sound of the village now. I know a hedgehog making its way along the planted borders, I know the postman’s early footsteps on the gravel. I know the alien hum of Mrs Larton’s late-night tumble-drying. This isn’t that. This is a human body moving. (92)

Lanny’s Mum:

In came the sound of a song,

Swarm on his creaturely breath,

And he snuggled against me, climbing up on my lap,

Wrapping himself around my neck. (17)

We never hear directly from Lanny. His absence reinforces the notion that the idea of Lanny can be filled by people in different ways.

The invention of Dead Papa Toothwort is a great achievement. He is a kind of greedy green man, primitive, lumbering, an accretion of all the rubbish and dead foliage around the village. He sees the villagers from the perspective of centuries.

Max Porter’sprevious book was beautifully produced, and the publisher has again ensured all the aesthetic aspects of the book have been thought through: paper quality; cover design, end papers, page layout. The quirky feature of the villagers’ comments works beautifully.

Highly recommended. 

Lanny by Max Porter (2019) Faber & Faber. 213pp

You can find my review of Grief is the thing with feathers  by Max Porter here.

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