Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: March

2nd March 2019

Lanny, the hotly anticipated new novel from Grief Is the Thing with Feathers author Max Porter, is our Book of the Month for March. Philip Connor Finn reviews:

One of the most eagerly anticipated novels of the year, Lanny is Max Porter’s follow up to 2015’s much-loved Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. This is the story of the disappearance of a young boy from a greenbelt town on London’s periphery. The eccentric Lanny can disappear in a moment or find the centre of a maze on first try. Lanny is by any measure an uncommon child and even befriends ‘Mad Pete’, the local artist who will become the focus for the media and village’s suspicion when Lanny vanishes.

Lanny, like its namesake, is charming and generous; immediately weird and permanently wonderful. The prose has a rich earthy Englishness to it, quirky, playful and frequently devastating. Both the book and the nameless village are intimately linked with Dead Papa Toothwort, a mythological folk figure of Porter’s creation. There are only ever fleeting whispers about this spirit of the wood; graffiti, carvings, old wives’ tales (‘…when my pets died my old man always used to say ‘Toothwort’s too ‘em.’) But Lanny’s story is more than intertwined with the menacing Toothwort – it is haunted by him – and only the reader and a precious few villagers suspect that Papa rather than Pete is responsible for the kidnapping.

What Lanny also reveals is this voyeurism of tragedy that springs up around missing persons, and especially missing children. Everyone is suddenly an expert, and the refrain runs through the book: ‘a child goes missing in this country every three minutes’.  The mystery, the endless theories, when nothing seems more absurd than the only thing we know to be true: that a small child has not come home.

Lanny has strong parallels with Jon McGregor’s Costa Prize winning Reservoir 13: beyond featuring a missing child, it is firmly grounded in the English village and its spectrum of reactions to tragedy. Part One of the book is narrated by four voices: both of Lanny’s parents, Pete, and Dead Papa Toothwort. Much of Papa’s sections are filled with the things he overhears: private whispers, pint-fueled jokes, secret thoughts that literally overlap on the page. By Part Two and Lanny’s disappearance, these voices become the real accusations and rumors of the villagers and the media. Porter uses them masterfully to describe the mass hysteria the disappearance evokes. Through this garbled echo chamber, the heartbreaking voice of Lanny’s mum breaks: ‘His hair, his eyes, his gait, his front teeth, his ankle socks, his scarred knee, his laugh. You will know him by his golden fluff on his shins. I would know him by his milky morning-breath. Findhimfindhimfindhimfindhim.’

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Lanny uses the cacophony of voices to tell the story more convincingly than one narrator, one single source of truth, could alone. That forever shift in voices from the teenager (‘…I was also kind of addicted to looking out for myself on telly and everyone said I looked fit. Really sad obviously but also fit.’) bleeds straight, and utterly convincingly, into the condolence prayer card (‘…we are thinking of you every second of every day…’)

The reader does not know what, or which of these voices, to believe. However, we do know what we want to believe. That Lanny is safe. That Papa is real. That Pete is innocent. That he might come back. We share in that collective hope and longing. The book achieves the effect of a true news story: it draws you in, and causes you to speculate endlessly, consume news constantly, desperate like all the other onlookers for any new information, for an outcome – however bleak.

The world cannot take its eyes from the parents, who are always suspected of being complicit even if it is only by negligence. The tabloids accuse Lanny’s mother, a crime novelist, of performance, of being ‘in on it’ with glee: ‘LATCHKEY LANNY: FREE TO ROAM’.

For some, a missing child becomes immediately mythologised, while others resent that same beatification: ‘The kid was different, let’s call off the search and paint some pretty pictures of him. He must have turned into an owl and flown to fucking Hogwarts to have dinner with Princess Diana.’

The only ending for a missing child is reunion, a funeral or never-ending speculation, and perhaps the last of these is cruelest. The not knowing. The appropriation of blame. The guilt. It is this not knowing that permeates Lanny and makes the book so captivating.

‘False things, endings. Sustenance for fools and never what they claim to be.’


‘Lanny’ is published by Faber on 7 March. Pre-order your copy (£12.99) here.

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