Lanny, by Max Porter (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

Review by Richard Strachan

Max Porter's first novel, 'Grief is the Thing With Feathers', was an extraordinary exploration of loss; lyrical and typographically playful, its blend of magical realism and poetry was a perfect mirror to the disorienting landscape of grief. In Ted Hughes, the subject of a book the recently-widowed narrator is trying to write, Porter found a sublime analogue for the tough artistic consciousness, confronting death not in order to defeat it but to assimilate it into a broader definition of life. 'Crow', Hughes's most vivid and anarchic creation, becomes a totem animal for the grieving family, a manifestation of suffering and the brute refusal to be cowed by it.

In his second novel, Porter follows Hughes's trail into the deep mulch of the rural world, the mythic bedrock of the country. The novel opens with the queasy reawakening of Dead Papa Toothwort, a weird chthonic deity or spirit of place, ‘represented on keystones, decorative stencils, tattoos, the cricket club logo’, who moves through and constructs himself from the discarded scraps of village life - he ‘coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fibreglass bath’. Deadwort has been unwittingly roused by Lanny, the young son of Robert and Jolie, who have escaped the London rat race for what they imagine is the leisure of stereotypical village life. While Robert commutes to his city office job every day, Jolie reflects on her brief acting career while trying her hand at writing a crime novel. Lanny, 'carrying his strange brain around’, is the only one among them who seems to truly come alive in this rural landscape, especially when his mother arranges for him to have lessons with a local artist, 'Mad' Pete Blyth, a famous cosmopolitan figure in the 1970s who has retired to the village to work without the pressures of success. As Lanny helps stir Pete's dormant artistic energies with his whimsical and dreamlike appreciation of the natural world, Dead Papa Toothwort’s mazy consciousness is increasingly drawn towards him. When Lanny goes missing, the village is plunged into a tabloid nightmare that reveals the hypocritical censoriousness lurking at the heart of English society. Pete is accused of abducting Lanny, even as Peggy, an old woman who has lived in the village her whole life, suspects the true culprit may be an older and stranger thing.

This could all sound a little too uncomfortably like Jon McGregor's 'Reservoir 13' - or Broadchurch with a mythic overlay - but Porter (a former editor at Granta) is a writer with an original mind and method, and the form and substance of his novel is very much his own. The inner thoughts of each character are presented in short poetic passages, the unattributed voices of the villagers overlapping (sometimes literally so, the typography layering words on top of each other) and blending into a cacophony of complaints and daydreams, idle speculations and spiteful hatred. When Lanny goes missing, these voices are laid out more conventionally, in short bursts of horrified speculation and reproach, even as they reveal the mundanities and creeping resentments at the heart of the village. The final section plunges into the hallucinatory possibilities of what might have happened to Lanny, as Porter cleverly subverts the assumptions of the missing child narrative.

Porter is clearly an immensely talented writer, bold in his approach to form and moved by genuine lyric gifts. For all its style and innovation though, Lanny feels too slight to truly satisfy. Everything seems a little too rushed, a little too worked-up and contrived, and each character is too representative of a type rather than a reality - the eccentric artist, the otherworldly child, the office drone dad. Only Dead Papa Toothwort feels thrillingly real; an authentic expression of the rural subconscious, something you can easily imagine emblazoned on the cornices of a country church. In the context of Brexit though, perhaps the real significance of the novel is in its interrogation of Englishness and its connection to landscape. In ‘Lanny’ Porter is joining writers like Paul Kingsnorth and Gregory Norminton in exploring a deeper and stranger form of national identity. It is one based more on what England is actually like rather than what its political right wing would like it to be.