I recently got around to reading Alan Garner's latest novel, the Booker Shortlisted 'Treacle Walker', and it I thought it would be good to review it here with a few thoughts about his work in general and also YA and children's fiction.
I have only begun reading Garner's books as an adult, having not discovered him until relatively recently. I wonder now how I would have felt about his novels had I discovered them when I was an avid Tolkien-obsessed 11 year old. As an adult reader, and one who has just had published my own YA novel, I am impressed. Garner is one of those rare authors whose early works were ostensibly aimed at children and yet transcend any such categorisations and end up being enjoyed and acclaimed by readers and critics of any age. Ursula Le Guin is another example of this - her Earthsea novels and stories are favourites of mine, and they have the same quality of writing and timelessness that makes them classics for all ages. (Also, her later works in the series deliberately 'grew up' alongside the readers who first encountered them). I think I first discovered Garner when his recent novel 'Boneland' was published - and I was intrigued to hear that it was a sequel to two children's fantasy novels that were originally published back in the 1960s, and that, unlike the first two, the lastest one focused on the characters as adults, and was a novel that was itself aimed at adult readers. This seemed like a really interesting choice for an author, and that coupled with the acclaim that he seemed to be held in, made me want to read the book. And so I did read the book, without bothering to stop and read the original children's novels first (mainly because my local library did not have them, though it did have 'Boneland'), and that was how I read and enjoyed my first Alan Garner book. The quality of Garner's prose was instantly apparent: he really does show and not tell, and scenes often play out largely in dialogue. The characters are strange and idiosyncratic, and they reveal themselves through what they say. (Much the same as Le Guin). I loved the book and wanted to read more. I could tell there was much that I was missing, in terms of the background from the first two books, as well as the references to the mythology and folklore that Garner is known for. But there also was a lot about cosmology and the the nature of time that I felt was handled in an intriguing way; and which I grasped without needing to be familiar with the other works. So here was an author that I needed to have on my radar. I tracked down some of his earlier books, often in small, thin, yellowed paperback copies that I found second hand. I have now read and enjoyed some of those (although some of them I am still working on), and I have found some of the themes mentioned above to be threaded through these earlier works. 'Red Shift' in particular is a standout - a layered and complex book set in three different time periods - which is certainly a challenging book for a reader of any age. It also has the sense of 'folded' time, in which characters and situations in the different eras seem to echo and resonate with each other.
And so we come to 'Treacle Walker': another book which seems to have the theme of Time. In fact, the book begins with a quote from physicist Carlo Rovelli:
'Time is ignorance'. Much is made of this in the blurbs and descriptions of the book on the web, many of them mentioning that the book is about the 'fluidity of time'. This is probably true, and certainly is a good description of some of the other Garner novels that I have read, however I feel that the book is mainly about Death. Which is not surprising coming from an author in his late 80s. The novel features a young protagonist (his age is not specified) who appears to live alone and encounters a strange person, a 'rag and bone' man. Reality seems to become unstable not long after this meeting, and things get much stranger from there. I won't give away any more of the plot, but I will say that it was one of the most enjoyable works I have read in some time. It is very short - there are no wasted words or descriptive passages, but it contains much. It is another novel that defies categorisation (there is some debate as to whether it was intended for children - don't think so). Another great Alan Garner novel. Reminds me of why I started reading in the first place - I just happened to encounter Tolkien first.