Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Lanny by Max Porter, an extraordinary novel best read in splendid isolation

I’m on the Isles of Scilly with friends, the weather’s been glorious and there’s been lots of walking, paddling in the clear waters and spirited conversation.

But the thing I’ve been most looking forward to, ever since I discovered a cairn at the top of the hill behind the house we’re staying in, is to take myself off for a couple of hours to read in complete solitude. Not just any book, though. The novel is one in which I’ve wanted to immerse myself ever since I ordered it.

After it arrived, it sat on the chest of drawers next to my bed, on top of David Nicholl’s Sweet Sorrow, John Lanchester’s The Wall, and Stephen King’s The Outsider. I’d been given a book token and went a bit mad.

My literary tastes are somewhat eclectic but a good friend tells me the common denominator is the quality of the prose.

‘You like good writing, don’t you?’ she said.

I hadn’t actually thought much about it before but she’s absolutely right. I wince at adverbs (Stephen King hates them) but my heart soars at lyrical prose. Okay, King’s prose is not very lyrical but he writes like a dream – and dispenses invaluable advice to aspiring writers in his memoir, On Writing.

The book I’ve been saving myself for is Lanny by Max Porter.

I’ve not read Grief Is A Thing With Feathers, his first novel which won him the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop young Writer of the Year Award, both in 2016. It’s since been adapted into play with Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy.

But I’d read about Max Porter. And when I heard he was coming to BridLit, I knew it was time I ordered Lanny. The style of writing described in the blurb appealed to me. The small stuff, the rural undercurrent that builds into a torrent. Village life, the mundane and magical, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

A bit like Jon McGregor perhaps. (I suggested Reservoir 13 for my book club. I sunk into that novel like the bog I once got stuck in under Lewesdon Hill, while others perhaps just didn’t get it. And McGregor’s If No-one Speaks of Remarkable Things has stayed with me since reading it when it came out in 2002. I can’t tell you much about the plot, just that the writing was like a breath taken and held and exhaled in wonder. If that sounds like I should be in Pseuds Corner, the so be it. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.)

So I was looking forward to Lanny, having convinced myself that Porter would be along the lines of McGregor.

Wrong. But not in a bad way. Oh no. Not in a bad way at all. I don’t think I have read ever read anything quite like it.

Lanny tells the story of an extraordinary little boy in an ordinary little village. And then, one day, Lanny goes missing.

As I sat, spellbound in a cleft in the rocks overlooking the harbour on Tresco, the book just took me over, like a spirit seeping into my soul. There is humour, there is joy, there is beauty, there is magic and a dreamy feel that put me on automatic pilot as I devoured the prose.

The first part was pure Under Milk Wood. The lyrical, poetic rhythm swoops and swirls, as does some of the text (literally) when we hear the overheard lines of conversation from the people who live in Lanny’s village.

The shapeshifting Dead Papa Toothwort, a sort of ancient Green Man-type figure but devious and cruel, haunts the pages as he comes and goes about his business, which centre on the special child that is Lanny.

The tricky middle is taut and full of recriminations and soothing words and this reader just hoped all would turn out well, for the best. For lovely Lanny, a boy as old as time but as young and new as an emerging leaf on a hazel tree.

There is a scene towards the end that I think the Guardian reviewer found too wacky but, believe me, the village hall raffle is staple stuff for any self-respecting rural community. In my village, we’re fully expecting a raffle to be held at the next wake.

And then the ending. There’s no spoiler alert from me but suffice to say, I got up from my cleft in the rock with a sore backside but a rich satisfaction in one of the best hour-and-halves I can honestly say I have ever spent.

Max Porter will be at BridLit on Tuesday 5 November, speaking in the Bull Ballroom at 4pm.

That's about it.

Love Maddie

Sunday, 22 September 2019

A new, creative, Open University year begins

The school holidays have come to an end, with children already hunkered down in the new school year.

University students are settling into their accommodation before the studying begins, and college kids are getting used to a different routine every morning.

I love autumn and that change in the seasons, from the hurly burly of summer to a more contemplative, meditative time of year.

New beginnings and all that.

For me, that means returning to that wonderful place of learning, The Open University, where I'm just about to start a masters degree in creative writing. At fifty-eight, it was now or never because my eligibility for a student loan runs out at the age of sixty.

As soon as I discovered that, the choice was already made. It was, in an expression I absolutely loathe, a no-brainer.

My degree years with the OU from 2007-2011 were among the most creative I've ever experienced.  The culture of supportive learning was a real tonic and stood me in good stead. I'm hoping for good things from this course, not least the joy of studying with like-minded people.

In the meantime, I've been reading my socks off, immersed in fiction and enjoying it as much as a bath in ethical bubbles from The Body Shop.

This represents some of my summer reading pile:

My copy of Sweet Sorrow by David Nicolls - which left me bereft when I finished reading it because I loved it so much - is currently out on loan to two good ladies from Lush Places, as is Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. I adored both of these books for different reasons.

Of the pile pictured, Circe by Madeline Miller was particularly superb, and so much better than her The Song of Achilles which I didn't like much at all.

My read of the year has to be Lanny by Max Porter, which I devoured in one sitting on a rock overlooking the harbour at Tresco on The Isles of Scilly. The beauty of the writing and setting stirred me to my bones.

I'm lucky enough to be blogging for this year's Bridport Literary Festival at which both Nicholls and Porter are appearing. I can't wait.

In the meantime, suitably nourished by all these books, I am now all set for my two years of study at The Open University.

Wish me luck.

That's about it

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

News from The Shed of Dreams, or words to that effect

On Sunday morning, there are two sheep sauntering in a very confident manner down the street.

Unfazed by the local peloton of cyclists zooming past in formation, the sheep look right, look left and then look right again before crossing the main road, heading in the direction of Lyme Regis.

They'll be corralled in a garden soon, way before they have the chance to place their towels out on the sand or frolic about with buckets and spades. Their adventure will probably be over within minutes.

But they're out there, giving it a go.

I am out here too, with two little girls laden with sweets from the village shop, each one far exceeding their £2 allowance, Young children are canny like that. They knew I'd lose count once the liquorice bootlaces and fried egg candies started going in the basket at speed. There were just too many figures to add up in my head.

Unlike the sheep or indeed their grandmother, who got a grade three CSE in maths three times (even with private tuition), these children are not stupid.

This afternoon, we will be mostly painting pebbles.

It is nearing the end of the school holidays and the children have run out of interesting things to do. They're with me for the weekend and I rashly suggest covering the kitchen table with newspaper and getting out the acrylic paints.

The third girl has now graced us with her presence after being in bed until nearly lunchtime. Well, I tell the others when they wail that it's not fair and shouldn't they wake their sister up, it's what teenagers do. Just as plants need water and light to photosynthesise, teenagers need sleep in order to grow.

'But we need to grow, too, Granny,' the little one says. Which is true and I am unable to counter this argument. These days, what with Brexit shenanigans and age making my brain turn to mush, I've given up arguing and any rational thought. I just go with my heart.

So I distract them by getting out the pebbles I collected when I was last down at the beach.

There is a fight over who has the best-shaped pebble and then a fight over the two paint brushes. The middle sister discovers that painting with fingertips is actually better and another one elects to use a sponge, which leaves a brush for me and the third sister to use.

My own pebble was selected long ago and was used as the sign for my writing shed. It bore the words The Shed of Dreams (if you think it, the writing will come), lovingly crafted in red and purple. Over the months, though, the name has eroded along with my creative writing output. The Shed of Dreams has become The  hed of  reams, then The   ed of   eams before making absolutely no sense at all.

So while the girls are absorbed in their handiwork, I repaint the pebble with new colours and design.

And I am very pleased with it, particularly the little fluffy clouds.

Until one of them says: 'Those clouds look just like sheep, Granny. And what's a Srea of Dreams?'

Oh dear, back to the drawing board.

That's about it.

Love Maddie

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