Treacle Walker by Alan Garner Review – A Phenomenal Late Fable | Fiction

No the author’s work is more closely linked, yet sparsely crafted than Alan Garner’s – connected not only to himself and the country through stories of a long-suffering Cheshire family who “knew their place”, but to myths and folklore that flow through children’s fantasies who created his name. In the 1970s, Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet were boundary markers between his children’s and adult books (though Garner could not recognize a distinction). Over the following decades, he honed his clipped, enigmatic style, and with the exception of Strandloper, an entry into the original Australian dream era, he stayed in the vicinity of his beloved Alderley Edge and dug and deepened. In 2012, half a century after the first two volumes, Boneland was an unexpected end to his Weirdstone trilogy; the source material turned into an adult novel about loss, pain, knowledge and madness that not only reached over the abyss of a human life, but millennia back into the Stone Age. Yarns are now 87; in 2018, a fragmentary memoir, Where Shall We Run to ?, conjured up his early years with an extraordinary immediacy, as if re-entering the river of childhood.

Few people expected another novel – and yet Treacle Walker, like all his books, feels as inevitable as it does surprisingly. Garner’s work has always been difficult to classify, here more than ever before: this little fable, carved out of elements from children’s stories, myths, alchemical texts, old rhymes and cartoons, has an irreconcilable directness, as if it still channels the childish point of view in his memories. .

Joe Coppock, a convalescent boy, is alone in the house when Treacle Walker comes and calls. We have heard his cry before, in Where Shall We Run ?, when the rag and leg man walks by: “Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags? Pots for cloths! Donkey heard it from his childhood hospital after the diseases that nearly killed him. But now the donkey stone – a scouring pad used to shine the front steps – becomes a talismanic object in an adventurous exchange with an empty medicine pot helps Joe realize his visionary potential.

Although Joe initially considers him “stupid as a brush” and smelly to begin with, Treacle Walker – who comes to the threshold again and again in an adventurous way and waits to be invited in – is a mythical figure whose wanderings help to keep the world turning. (As always with Garner, the mythical and universal is born of the specific and the local: a friend of his, who writes in the 2016 festival magazine First Light, remembers their discussion of a Walker Treacle, “healer vagabond from Holywell Green who could cure anything but jealousy. ”) And Joe’s lazy eye, on which he must have a patch, is a term for” glamor. “Once his good eye is uncovered, he can see the former surface reality and talk to the mummified Iron Age man Thin Amren, who sits up by the bog near Joe’s house and tells him, “Move the dishes and close your twinkle.”

The father of this book comes from the cartoon that taught Garner to read, his childhood favorite Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, “who always fought Whizzy the Wicked Wizard and his friends, Brit Bashers”. It’s a risky strategy, but Garner evokes an ominous force from the happy font in which the characters’ easy-to-read threats are rendered – “BIF HIM FOR THAT BRICK AND POT HE’S GOT” – as they blare straight out of the page. If Boneland was an adult who reckoned with the material behind The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Treacle Walker reads as a feverish companion to Elidor: a visionary boy, an extra, dreamlike landscape, the forces of darkness knocking against the porch, the half -heard the sound of distant music. In that novel, fairy tales turn into a broken teacup or a bit of an iron railing. Totems of Garner’s later work are usually geologically permanent: flint or rock. Here they are child-sized and humble people – a marble, a small Victorian pot – but no less powerful for that.

Alan Garner.
Alan Garner. Photo: Fabio De Paola / Shutterstock

Along with these artifacts, Garner also excavates argot from a 1940s Cheshire boy. It is a common language, but spread with idiom and slang; Joe’s optician says “shufti” and “ticketyboo”, “wonky” and “squiffy”. Thin Amren is brusquely speaking: “I would not trust that one’s ass with a fart.” Treacle Walker, meanwhile, speaks in riddles filled with nonsense, rejoicing in codes and riddles and the mouthfeel of every word that disappears: scapulimancer, whirlwind, hurlothrumbo. His airy rhetoric is often punctured by matter-of-fact Joe; the chimney, Treacle declares, is a liminal space – the path between “Earth, the sky and the sapient stars”. “It’s to let the smoke out,” Joe says.

As a child tied to the bed and found a world in the ceiling above him, “Garner played with time, as if it were chewing gum … I had to”. All his work is fascinated by the inner time of dream and vision, as well as deep geological time and the eternal present of myth, but Boneland explored scientific reasoning behind the “impossibility of now”. In Treacle Walker, discussions about subatomic particles give way to koans. The epigraph is taken from the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli: “Time is ignorance.” Rovelli believes that it is a mistake to pursue our sense of time in physics alone – that it is associated with human brain structure. Or as Garner puts it: “What’s out is in. What’s in is out.”

Treacle Walker is a circular tale, made of smaller interlocking circles, with actions and whole sections that are repeated: at the end is its beginning. This late fiction also works on the seam in Garner’s very first novel, inspired by the story handed down to his grandfather about enchanted sleepers during Alderley Edge. Garner has always been explicit about the moment of breakup that kickstarted his imagination: alienation by academic opportunities from his family’s deep oral culture. Loss and abandonment permeate his writing, from the horn Colin hears at the end of The Moon of Gomrath, “so beautiful he never found rest again”, to the snatch of train station graffiti that inspired Red Shift: “not right now not anymore. ”In Treacle Walker, Joe wakes up from a dream of music under the hill to be left with“ Nothing. None. Only loss. “Yet this playful, moving, and utterly remarkable work is also about being found when Treacle Walker finds Joe – and as Joe finds his difficult fate. There is a life work inside this little book.

Treacle Walker is released by 4th Estate (£ 10). To support Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply.

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