Book Review: Lanny by Max Porter

Every month on the last Tuesday of the month, I meet with a handful of people and participate in the Sticky Notes Book Club. This is a themed club, but is much different than any other I’ve encountered. As a group, we choose a general topic which is often a single word. Each member then gets to choose a book as directly or loosely related to that topic as they want.

The benefit of having a book club like this is that each person gets to share a book. This opens me up personally to new types of writing that I may have not considered before. Even when I choose a book for this club, I am sure to pick an author I don’t know as well as the parameter of keeping the book under 250 pages. I do this last part because I am usually reading about eight books at a time. The themed book has to be easily consumable.

This month’s theme was time. For some reason, the digital catalogue places this book with a tag concerning time. The only thing I can relate to this book is the absence of time. It flowed in such an indirect way that the reader does not have any idea how much time passes or how fast. The entire story is a purgatory of knowing. The book I chose was called Lanny by Max Porter.  

The book is set in a small, rural town in England and is set around the Lloyd family. Robert, the father, works and commutes to London as a businessman. Jolie is a failed actress turned crime-thriller novelist and the mother of Lanny. In this town there is an old fable about Dead Papa Toothwort who lives under the city. The villager’s use this tale mostly to scare children into behaving, but Lanny likes the idea of him. Mad Pete, the local eccentric artist, plays a big role in Lanny’s life.

Lanny is a curious boy. He is wondrous and full of magical thinking. He sings to himself, makes up stories, creates art, and is outside the social circle. His mother adores him, and his father thinks he’s strange. When Lanny seems closed off at school, Jolie employs Mad Pete to give the boy art lessons in an attempt to give the child something social to do.

The relationship between the old man and the young boy is as good as anything gets in this world. Each of them are outside the social circle but at opposite ends of their lives. Pete and Lanny learn from each other and where the older give wisdom, the younger returns a joy and innocence to thinking. One day, Lanny wanders off to the woods to create a building made of mud, sticks and anything he finds. He goes missing and though Mad Pete is out of town, they accuse him of being a kidnapper and child molestor.

In the end they find Lanny, but after much languish both mentally and physically.

One of the most interesting features of this book is that it is told in the POV of the main characters in the first section and then it is random grasps of thought from all characters and nameless people in the village. It is face paced and initially confusing in the second section, but it shows how a town is affected by Lanny’s disappearance and how easy people blame each other.

The way each character thinks of the other is fascinating, as I am sure we all wish we had insight as to how other people saw us versus how we see ourselves. Here is how Mad Pete and Jolie see each other:

“And she laughed, and said she understood, and then off she drifted in that nice way she has. Responsive to the light, I would call it.”  Mad Pete

“I walked up the village street, pretending to be on my phone so as not to have to stop and chat to Peggy about the coming moral apocalypse, and I squirmed in the imaginary space between how Robert would react to a comment like that–I should be paying you!–and how I wanted to hear it. I wanted to be charmed by a comment like that.”  Jolie Lloyd

And how Robert thinks of spending time with Pete and Lanny:

“…and only after getting home and opening a beer did I realize it was the nicest few hours of my life for ages, and I hadn’t thought about work, I hadn’t checked my phone, and I enjoyed the painting…”  Robert Lloyd

My favorite line in the book that summed up Lanny was in a conversation he had with his mother where he asked her a question that boy’s around the age of ten don’t express:

“Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”

Sandwiched randomly through the book are the musings of Dead Papa Toothwort. He lives under the village and in the evenings eats snatches of villagers conversations. These sections have words curved all over the page. There are fragments of life everywhere. The reader comes to understand that Dead Papa Toothwort knows every dirty secret about each person that lives there.
This book is a mixture of harsh ideas, of introversion in characters that we actually get to see the meaning behind, and the magical mind of a ten year old boy. Lanny is the one that brings them together and tears them apart. It was a quick and enjoyable read. I’ll be on the lookout for Max Porter’s first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers which won the International  Dylan Thomas Prize.

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