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Posted on 18 Apr 2019 in Fiction | 2 comments

MAX PORTER Lanny. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, returns with a new novel, Lanny, that taps into an ageless flow of folklore, feelings, fears and superstitions.

Lanny is a wonderfully imaginative, innovative and unusual book and it is hard to write a conventional review of it without destroying the impact of its strange, often zany, nature. Max Porter is superbly able to capture the character of each of his people in brief passages where each is recognisable by their thoughts, words and concerns. This is true of his main characters, who are named, but also of his unnamed villagers. And there is a playful disordering of some lines of type; plus, between sections 1 and 2, a strange scattering of small crosses across white pages. Porter, however, weaves magic and reality together so skilfully that the book will delight imaginative readers, although it may puzzle those who expect a conventional layout and a straightforward storyline.

The first shock to the reader is meeting Dead Papa Toothwort as he ‘wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter’. He is exactly what his name implies – a devouring, parasitic, root of the earth. He lives in the woods and fields and shape-shifts through the village feeding on its detritus, its small deaths, its sounds, smells and gossip. This is his ‘English symphony’ – random fragments of thought and speech that sometimes flow across the book’s pages like music:  ‘blocked drains’; ‘Dylan needs a dimmer switch on his temper’; ‘all pumped up and shiny like a greased pig’; ‘PlayStation’s bust’.

Dead Papa Toothwort has been in the village since before it began. He is ever-present ‘as a cyclical reliability, as part of the country curriculum’. He is there in the Green Man carved in the village church: ‘grinning at the baptised and married, the bored and the dead, biting down on limewood belladonna’. He is there at every summer fete, ‘amongst the folk who dress up as Toothwort’. He haunts the villagers and frightens the children:

Say Your Prayers, and be Good Too

Or Dead Papa Toothwort is Coming For You.

And he has a special liking for the boy, Lanny. Which is dangerous, because every hundred years or so he feels ‘a tightening itch’ that he can’t resist and has to ‘put on a show’, intervene, ‘change the nature of the place’. The flow of italicised fragments of village talk across the pages becomes tangled, congested, overprinted and confused as Dead Papa Toothwort’s disturbance grows. And a terrible thing happens. Lanny goes missing.

Dead Papa Toothwort dominates the first section of the book but we also meet Lanny, Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad, and Pete, an artist who was once famous and who now lives quietly in the village, working on small commissions. Pete has reluctantly agreed to teach Lanny about art and they slowly form a story-telling, art-sharing friendship. For Pete, ‘Lanny is good. Different, and bloody wonderful.’

Lanny is different. He sings, ‘part song, part chant’, disappears and reappears suddenly, does strange unpredictable things, empathises too strongly with the world’s ills and has a strong affinity with nature.  ‘Our little mystery,’ his mother calls him. His father notes that Lanny’s school report says that Lanny ‘has a gift for social cohesion. He will often calm a fraught classroom with a single well-time joke or song.’ But Lanny puzzles and sometime irritates his father:

What, Lanny?

Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?

I’m suddenly really annoyed. He’s too old for shit like this. Or too young. It’s fucking silly.

Go to sleep Lanny, and don’t get out of bed. We’ll talk about this in the morning.

I lie awake worrying, picturing my son lying on the cold grass whispering to a tree. Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope? What’s wrong with him?

But for Dead Papa Toothwort, ‘The boy understands’ – he is ‘Like me’:

The boy knows me.

He really truly knows me.

In the second part of the book, when Lanny is missing, Porter gradually immerses us in the emotional turmoil that pervades the village as the police arrive and conduct interviews and searches, and the media turn up looking for sensational stories. Hopes and fears, worries, gossip, loves, hatreds, bigotry, desire for notoriety, and suspicions fill the thoughts of family, friends and villagers. No one is named but we recognise Lanny’s Mum, Dad, Pete and Old Peggy (the village mystic), as well as pub gossipers, a pretentious neighbour who has long harboured grudges against Lenny’s family as newcomers to the village, and others. Pete, who lives unconventionally and imagines a snooty neighbour googling him and discovering that he ‘once filled a gallery with painted wooden dicks’, becomes a scapegoat.

Porter builds tension  throughout this section, and it is a relief when Old Peggy kneels in front of her ancient carved oak chest and whispers directly to Dead Papa Toothwort:

Look after him….

I know you.

I know what you’re up to.

Give the boy back.

But Lanny remains missing.

Only in the final section of the book does Porter let the magic become seriously weird as Dead Papa Toothwort appears in a sort of game show to challenge and test Lanny’s Dad, Old Pete and Lanny’s Mum. For me, this worked, and the final pages of the story are, maybe, as Old Peggy suggests:

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

Nevertheless …

She tells us of her vision of the future and it is sad, funny and satisfying, and we want to believe it.

Those who read and loved Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Porter will recognise something of his Crow in Dead Papa Toothwort, and will be attuned to Porter’s imaginative storytelling. Lanny is a story that taps into an ageless flow of folklore, feelings, fears and superstitions, and Porter tells it beautifully.

Max Porter  Lanny Faber 2019 HB 224pp $27.99

Max Porter will be a guest of the 2019 Sydney Writers Festival and you can check out his appearances here.

Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (// are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Lanny  from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.


  1. A very enticing review. I love stories that give the reader space to play.

  2. Faint echoes of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood with its cast of quirky villagers and subterranean motives and dreams, this review points the way to an intriguing read.