Truth to tell, this has been the hardest post of this series to write. I have not got into this book yet, not past its surface. I have not ‘got it’. I have read it three times and read some of the other reviews that talk of underlying themes I do not recognise from my own readings. What follows is a personal, but almost certainly extremely limited response.
When Boneland was published in 2011, I assumed that it would be Alan Garner’s final book. The combination of his age, and the length of research and preparation that went into each new novel seemed bound to preclude one last hurrah. And Boneland‘s subject seemed to provide a fitting circularity to his career. Gratefully, I was wrong.
Treacle Walker is not a big book. It may be 152 pages long but those pages are double-spaced, the chapters are brief and each chapter break occupies three to four effectively blank pages, offering only the chapter number in Roman numerals. Without rushing in any way, the story can be read in about three-quarters of an hour.
It’s also, or so I read it, a reversion to Garner’s original classification. This is a children’s book, though Garner doesn’t write children’s books. It contains only three characters: Joe Coppock, a boy at home in bed, Treacle Walker, an itinerant pedlar and rag-and-bone man, and Thin Anrem, a kind of bog monster of human form. And it borrows characters, who speak in a different font that imitates hand-lettering, from the Forties comic, Knockout, and its series ‘Stonehenge Kit, The Ancient Brit’, which Garner revealed, in Where Shall We Run To to be his favourite.
Again, Garner is using his own personal history, his experience of serious illness, of confinement immobile to bed for three years, to delineate the story. He’s spoken of lying there on his back, looking at the ceiling, transforming it in his mind to a landscape in which he would have fantastic adventures. Joe Coppock stands for Alan Garner. He is represented as being more mobile, able to leave his bed as Garner couldn’t, inviting in Treacle Walker, who gives him talismans of stone and pot, for old rags, who talks with a (though perhaps only in Joe’s imagination amongst the ceiling) curious formality, able to go down to the bog and encounter Thin Amren.
And the story is unanchored in either time or physical reality. Yes, the fact that Joe reads Knockout dates it, but that is the only indication of when this is taking place. And we assume, because this is Alan Garner, that this story takes place somewhere in or adjacent to Alderley Edge but the story doesn’t tell us anything which, with a writer whose career has been so firmly anchored to place, is a significant omission.
Treacle Walker and Thin Amren are themselves characters of fantasy, with no antecedents in myth that I recognise (if anything, the only chord Thin Amren strikes is with DC’s Swamp Thing). I find it significant that the outside influence Garner draws upon comes not from myth but from long ago British boys comics. Stonehenge Kit breaks through into Joe’s ‘real’ life, followed by his archenemy Wizzy the Wizard and one of his Brit-Bashers, distinguished in their every word not by what they say but the letters in which they say it, which are all in capitals and a larger font size, jumping out of the book page every time they appear.
Critical response to the book has been mixed but mostly favourable. One long review I have read, that purports to ‘explain’ the book, suggests that Joe’s illness is fatal and that Treacle Walker is here to conduct him across the threshold that, in the beginning, with the donkey stone Joe selects, is erected to preserve him. Certainly, the final chapter sees Joe, under Treacle Walker’s directions, bind Thin Anrem to the bog, using five alder withies, before replacing the rag-and-bone man as Treacle Walker himself.
Add into this that Joe, after using unguent from the jar he also receives from the pedlar, develops a curious double-vision. He wears an eyepatch for long periods of the day, to act against his amblyopia, blacking out his good eye to force his bad, or ‘lazy’ eye, to develop. With his lazy eye, Joe sees things as they are, as you and I would see them, but with his good eye he sees further. Whether he sees things that aren’t there, such as Thin Amren, or only now sees what is actually there, such as Thin Amren, is a matter for perception.
I confess to not fully understanding this book, except on the level of a young, restricted child’s imaginative venture into a world that doesn’t exist. Everything in it militates against a realistic grounding. The long review suggests that it is a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of Garner’s lifelong obsessions: the unimportance of time, the importance of thresholds. Other reviews favour a similar interpretation, a summation of Garner’s own life, a last tidying-out before the pen is laid down forever.
Almost I’d say the book is slight. The surface of a mill-pond perhaps, still but turbid, that we believe without seeing to contain a turbulent ocean underneath, that we shall not travel in our time, not to reach the further shore. We trust in the depths.
After writing the above, two further matters of importance came to light. The first was that Garner was ‘given’ the book, in the terms he uses by a friend who mentioned the title character’s name, an apparent real-life tinker going under that name in a near modern context.
The other is that Treacle Walker was short-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize. How I hoped, as I have never done before, it would win! But it was passed over. Yet what a thing, what recognition for a writer whose output has been limited in pages yet possibly one of the most wide-ranging ever in content, depth and implication. I haven’t read the winner, and doubt I ever will, but I cannot think it a better book.
So far I have only read Treacle Walker three times. Obviously, I need to familiarise myself with it at greater length. I don’t rank authors’ works, though clearly I have favourites. If I were to stipulate a 1-2-3 order, these would be Red Shift, The Owl Service and The Stone Book Quartet (this time collectively) in descending order. How I might class the other books of Alan Garner’s career, and where Treacle Walker would sit amongst them, I have no idea, save this: how can you rank a career without impliedly choosing one book to take bottom place? And how can you class any of Alan Garner’s books as ‘the worst?’