Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015), was an ingenious debut in which a recently bereaved father and his two sons are comforted by Crow, an imaginary spirit animal based on the titular bird of Ted Hughes’s 1970 collection. Hughes was a major stylistic inspiration for Grief is the Thing with Feathers and, in Lanny, remains Porter’s formal lodestar. In both books Porter writes in a prose that is heavy with prosody and relies on poetic convention for its effects.
The plot of Lanny can be quickly relayed. Lanny is a boy who has recently moved to a commuter-belt village from the city with his parents, but he is a strange, almost mystical child (‘Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key’). His mother senses Lanny’s need for creativity and arranges for him to have drawing lessons with a solitary artist known locally as ‘Mad Pete’ because of his minor eccentricities. There is a lot of atmospheric exposition (Lanny’s mum writes a gory crime novel, Lanny’s dad frets about his job in the City, Pete and Lanny draw together in the countryside) before, in the second half of the novel, Lanny goes missing. Rumours swirl around the village; Pete is accused of kidnapping him.
What makes Lanny remarkable is the presence of another narrative running underneath that sketched out above. Just as Crow is the central figure in Porter’s debut, an imagined ‘green man’ of the forest called Dead Papa Toothwort is the guiding spirit of Lanny. Toothwort is a creature of village myth,