Lanny is a peculiar boy. He’s full of whimsy and deeply connected to the natural world and his quirky behaviour causes ripples of bafflement and adoration among the people who know him. But Lanny’s strangeness also rouses the interest of something otherworldly: an ancient spirit whose essence permeates the small English village where he lives with his parents. Dead Papa Toothwort, as he’s called in local folklore, takes a special interest in the boy and it gradually impacts the whole community as the unsettling, and at times nightmarish, story unfolds. Max Porter delves deep into the psyche of his characters, and the collective spirit of the community, in his darkly poetic novella.
Lanny’s parents recently moved to a village outside London where try as they might, they are still considered outsiders. His mother, a failed actress who is now an aspiring writer, convinces a local artist, Pete, to give Lanny art lessons. ‘Mad Pete’ is an outsider himself and takes a shine to enigmatic Lanny and an unusual but endearing friendship evolves between them. Lanny’s father struggles to understand his son’s eccentric ways and escapes from his domestic troubles through the busyness of his London-based corporate job. The lives of the adults play out through their observations of Lanny. Their thoughts and concerns are interspersed with Dead Papa Toothwort’s observations as he listens in and savours the uninhibited thoughts and conversations in the village. As Dead Papa Toothwort becomes more enamoured with Lanny, Lanny’s odd behaviour becomes even stranger and perhaps tinged with something sinister. Then Lanny goes missing. At first, the town rallies to find him but as time drags by the uncertainty and guilt unhinges the collective effort and accusations are flung about as a media spectacle unfolds. His mother, father and Pete’s psyches are split open as they grapple with their grief and regrets. Everyone desperately wants to know: Where is Lanny, is he alive and what happened to him?
“I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping, clicking, clicking, every second something is growing and changing. We are little arrogant flashes in a grand magnificent scheme.”
Porter’s short novel is dark and unnerving, but the enchanting fluidity of his prose, interwoven with a deep sensitivity for his characters, make this a compelling read. I thought it worked particularly well as an audiobook and some sections are so mesmerising, it begs you to listen to it again just to enjoy its beauty. His storytelling leaves you constantly off-balance, uncertain where the narrative will turn to next, and Porter’s untamed imagination, which at times borders on the bizarre, creates suspense throughout. If you like your fiction clean-cut and stripped from strangeness, steer clear of Lanny. But if you enjoy the brooding, oozing weirdness lurking underneath the seemingly stock-standard shell of people’s lives, you will be left slightly bewildered but utterly fascinating by this tale.
If you enjoy magic and mystery, you’ll also enjoy The Hoarder by Jess Kidd. For something completely different, why not try The Salt Path by Raynor Winn – this memoir grapples with how your home is deeply connected to your sense of self .
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