I’ve been reading Alan Garner’s work for more than forty years, and sporadically venturing an opinion in print (even here on Strange Horizons). He is one of “my” writers. Unsurprisingly, then, I read Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker almost the moment it was published, and almost my first response was “how on earth am I going to write about this?”—because I knew I would have to. Here we are, at what might reasonably be considered to be the twilight of Garner’s career; something ought to be said. The man is eighty-seven, after all, and to say I was surprised there was another novel to be had after the, in parts, magisterial Boneland (2012) is to wildly understate my reaction when it was first announced. Mind you, I was surprised when Where Shall We Run To? appeared in 2018—I had not been expecting an actual memoir of Garner’s childhood. Was that story not already familiar to anyone who had paid the slightest attention to his career over the years? As it turned out, there were more stories there, about Garner’s childhood companions, and a few later stories to boot. Lots of people seemed to like Where Shall We Run To?, but I wasn’t sure. What they saw as the considerable achievement of Garner putting himself into a child’s mind and telling the story from there, I personally found a little arch. There was a sense, though, that Garner was now tying off the ends. Indeed, I rather thought he had actually tied them off—but then came Treacle Walker.
Where, then, to start? Let’s start with the critical response to Treacle Walker, which has been curious, to say the least. By “critical” I here mean the reviews in the newspapers and other “immediate” outlets; in the discussion below I’m sampling just a few that I happened to come across around publication date. This is not an exhaustive survey.
To begin: Melanie McDonagh reviewed Treacle Walker as part of a roundup of the best children’s novels of 2021 in the Spectator (behind a paywall). She likes the novel—“it’s utterly compelling”—but is flummoxed as to what age group it’s written for. Hardly surprising as, even though it is about a child, it doesn’t fit comfortably with our current understanding of what a children’s book, or YA novel, would look like. And, for reasons I’ll come to later, I doubt very much that Garner intended it for a child audience, but evidently someone in the editorial department thought that a child’s viewpoint means a book for children.
(Personally, I would have read the shit out of Treacle Walker if I’d encountered it as a teenager, because I liked difficult, wordy things, but I’m fairly sure that understanding it would have been a matter for another time and place, with a few more years behind me. Or many more, given that there is no one moment of total comprehension of a novel. Interpretation is a mutable thing and now I do not read The Owl Service (1967) or Red Shift (1973) in the way I did as a teenager or when in my early twenties.)
McDonagh’s summary of the novel is briskly efficient—“Treacle Walker is a rag-and-bone man who isn’t what he seems—a man who emerges occasionally from a marsh—and an unlovely boy called Joe, who’s obsessed with comics and sees things he shouldn’t.” None of this is actually untrue but neither does it really sum up the novel. It’s not even a review as such: Melanie McDonagh had fifty-odd words at her disposal to write a plot synopsis and offer a snap judgement, and she did just that. One cannot expect a considered opinion in those circumstances, and frankly, this novel is not going to be summarised in fifty words (though there were numerous people in private forums who seemed to think McDonagh ought to have done better—in fact, I think she understood her task very well and did her best with an impossible book).
Claire Lowdon’s review of Treacle Walker, in a roundup of new novels in The Sunday Times (also behind a paywall), didn’t do much better. If anything, despite having more words at her disposal (around a hundred), she made a worse job of it than McDonagh. Even in fifty words, McDonagh’s enthusiasm shone through, whereas Lowdon is clearly at a loss. My general impression is that she had no idea who Garner was so had no idea what to expect of his writing.
Treacle Walker is a peculiar book featuring young Joseph Coppock, a boy with eye trouble who seems to live alone in an old house, and who is befriended by the rag-and-bone man of the title. […] Walker is an eccentric spiritual guide, and reality soon starts to wobble as comic strips come to life and the letters of an eye test spell out an alchemical formula in Latin. […] the story itself is none the worse for feeling curiously outdated, like a children’s book from yesteryear.
Again, nothing in Lowdon’s summary is actually wrong, per se, but neither does she seem to me to actually engage with the novel. Or, rather, I don’t think she particularly wants to engage with the novel. Ironically, however—or possibly unintentionally—she does hit on something significant when she describes the novel as “feeling curiously outdated,” but there is no chance for her to follow up on this. I’ll be doing that for her later.
The Guardian reviewed Treacle Walker twice. Alex Preston’s review was … very Alex Preston. Readers are reassured that Preston is very familiar with Garner’s work, and he identifies Garner’s big themes, but, once the review is stripped of the reviewer’s distinctive stylistic tics, there is not actually that much said about the novel itself. Preston rightly describes Treacle Walker as the summation of Garner’s career as a writer, but doesn’t give much indication of what that might mean. I’m not sure who titled the review “the book of a lifetime”—that’s tricksily true in a way but is not what this review is about. This, if you like, is the review as performance. We’re invited into the world of Alex Preston—a comfortable, gossipy place, brimming with literary references and asides about writers he’s met recently, in which the novel under discussion generally plays a fairly small part. Preston isn’t alone in approaching the craft in this way: Andrew O’Hagan is another writer whose reviews are rather like this; in O’Hagan’s case, every review is an opportunity for literary memoir (his own, not that of the author under consideration). All of which is fascinating, I’m sure, but I do expect a review to offer some sort of insight into the book itself and I’m not sure I’ve got that in this instance.
Justine Jordan’s review, also in the Guardian, is rather different. It’s a long review, twice as long as Preston’s, and it’s clear that Jordan really does understand Garner’s recent publishing history: she confidently lays out the links between Treacle Walker and other recent publications by and about Garner, including Where Shall We Run To? and the 2016 Festschrift, First Light, in which the real Treacle Walker is first mentioned. More than that, she recognises how Treacle Walker resonates with so many of Garner’s other novels, and links it in particular to Elidor (1965), that problematic third novel.
Is this review a piece of criticism? No. But it’s getting closer than any of the other reviews I’ve looked at so far, in that it gives readers a sense of the considerable hinterland in Garner’s work. It’s very much the sort of review I’d be glad to find if I did not know that much about Alan Garner and was looking for other titles to move on to. We have novels by, and books about, Garner here. And yet. As most reviewers do—and indeed are probably obliged to—Jordan still shies away from discussing the story in much detail, as indeed did Carolyne Larrington in the Times Literary Supplement (unfortunately behind a paywall). Larrington’s review explores Garner’s themes and influences in greater depth than does Jordan’s but at the end we still don’t know that much about the novel itself.
In some respects this is probably not surprising. In a public review there is a perceived requirement to not “spoil” the novel for those who have not yet read it (though I strongly suspect Treacle Walker is immune to being spoiled because it is just so unusual, or “peculiar,” if you like). If a plot summary is designed to address the question “do I want to read this?”, then the average broadsheet or literary journal review might, at its best and most effective, be characterised as “here are some reasons why you might find this book interesting” or “here are some reasons why this book may not be quite what you think.” In nonfiction reviewing, of course, there is no need to worry about revealing the end, although nonfiction reviewing just as frequently resorts to summarising the contents of a book in lieu of engaging with its argument or passing any kind of judgement on it. Indeed, strange as it might sound, I felt that, in some ways, Larrington and Jordan were reviewing Treacle Walker as a piece of nonfiction, pointing out recurring themes in Garner’s work even as they tried not to spoil the novel, which I found rather disconcerting.
There is also another issue for reviewers that is rarely if ever addressed, and that is the difficulty of writing about an author who has a long and storied career, and whose work is … “revered” is probably not too strong a word … by so many. This is a thing I have had to come to terms with myself over the years. The post-Red Shift novels have never worked quite as well for me as the earlier novels did (I can never quite decide whether The Owl Service or Red Shift is the better book). For a long time I thought it was just my not understanding, but as I’ve grown older—and more experienced as a reader and critic—I am confident in saying that, whereas the more recent novels are perhaps more formally daring, they are as likely to miss their mark as to hit it.
And yet I can’t, offhand, think of a review of any of Garner’s work, certainly not his more recent work, that risks anything more than faint puzzlement at the bits the critic doesn’t understand, although Penelope Lively did express some irritation over Garner’s use of language in Strandloper (1996) and was unpersuaded by the connections he sought to make between Cheshire and the cultures of indigenous Australians. Nowadays, I too have my reasons for doubt, although the words I am currently toying with are “cultural appropriation.” There is probably a case to be made at some point too for reading Garner’s work through Bakhtin’s theories, if someone hasn’t already, but that’s a job for another day.
It is a quality of Garner’s work, however, that it inspires obsession and adulation in readers, and along with that comes a reluctance to say anything even remotely negative about his work, and a refusal to address anything critical said by others. This happens a lot in private social forums—Garner is a shaman, or whatever, and there is little if any space to say “maybe, just maybe, he is actually a human being and this book is not entirely perfect.” To even attempt that in certain company can be unwise. “Can you not,” said someone, having read my 1995 paper on Garner, “just enjoy his writing without having to do this kind of academic stuff.” Which does not bode well for the reception of what is to come here, because this is a critical essay and must identify both questions and answers, rather than merely compile clues.
We began with the critics, but where does the critic begin with Treacle Walker, this summation of Garner’s career, as people keep describing it? The reviewers we have already encountered have clearly struggled. Over the years, I have come more and more to appreciate John Clute’s belief that to write proper criticism one needs to discuss the whole of the fiction, rather than leaving the reader hanging on the edge of a precipice at the vital moment by refusing to discuss the ending. As much as possible, now, I always try to discuss the ending. In part, it’s as simple as the fact that I don’t believe, except possibly in some strands of detective fiction, that knowing the ending before you get there is to spoil the novel. It’s the journey that I find interesting. I’ve no especial need to be surprised by fiction; I’ve read enough over the years to recognise how stories are likely to pan out. Rather, I like to be absorbed by reading fiction; a surprise is a bonus. Part of writing criticism is to analyse the ending. But not everyone agrees with my view. So, if you absolutely feel you must read the book before you read my commentary, this is the moment to step away and do just that.
Reading Garner is, for some people, like a treasure hunt. They eagerly chase the breadcrumb-trail of names and places and historical events. I’ve done it myself in the past—and, to be honest, I’m fighting hard to resist doing it now—and in a way it’s not surprising that people do. It’s very much a mark of Garner’s work that it is so deeply embedded in the landscape and history of Cheshire (and Garner has stated more than once that he prefers the company of historians and archaeologists to that of literary people).
But to trace out all those connections is not in itself an act of critical writing; it’s a process of annotation. It may become valuable later in terms of understanding a novel’s context but it is not a substitute for thinking critically about a work. Indeed, it can become a distraction from the actual task in hand, and I think that’s something that happens a lot in relation to Garner’s work. To take one example in relation to Treacle Walker, there was huge excitement on one forum when it was discovered that “Joseph Coppock” was a real person. Yes, and? More significantly, Treacle Walker was a real person—Walter Helliwell, or Walker Treacle, an eccentric tramp and healer (he claimed he could cure anything except jealousy) who lived in Holywell Green, near Sheffield, in the early twentieth century—but this is not a novel about that man. Garner has appropriated his name for the novel, and I can see good reasons why he might have done that, but they have nothing to do with the actual man.
Criticism is about asking questions and perhaps answering them, too. One question I must obviously ask at this point is “what is going on in Treacle Walker”? It’s a very broad question, and not that helpful as it invites a plot synopsis, and we’ve already had several of those. And yet, another plot synopsis, a longer one, might unearth some clues. We’ve already established from the reviews mentioned earlier that Joseph Coppock, a boy, receives visits from the mysterious Treacle Walker, on his horse and cart. Walker is a rag-and-bone man and he wants to trade with Joe: “‘Rag and bone,’ said the man. ‘And you shall have pot and stone’” (p. 4). By trading an old pair of pyjamas and a bone from a lamb, Joseph will receive a pot that he must choose for himself from a chest filled with containers of one sort or another, and Walker will also give him a donkey stone. The donkey stone, when Treacle Walker hands it over, is embellished with the sign of a galloping white horse, which many people will recognise as the shape of the Uffington White Horse, in Oxfordshire.
The mention of the pot and the stone made me think immediately of the artefacts the children rescue from Elidor in the novel of that name—a sword, a stone, a gold cup, and a spear—and how they are transformed into ordinary objects in this world: two pieces of wood nailed together, a brick, a china teacup, and a piece of iron railing, which suggests to me that this is perhaps the novel to keep in mind as I continue writing about Treacle Walker, especially as there is also a white horse in Elidor, a unicorn, in fact. Here we should recall that Justine Jordan also recognised the connection even if she did not elaborate on it. There are other resonances, which I’ll come to later. But before I can focus on that, I need to consider the pot that Joseph chooses from Treacle Walker’s chest of pots and jars, and the green violet ointment it contains, which is obviously connected to Treacle Walker’s green violet eyes. What the ointment is for, specifically, is not mentioned in the novel but Poor Man's Friend is clearly a quack medicine so the possibilities are endless.
Later, when Joe accidentally smears some of the ointment on his good eye, the one he is supposed to keep covered in order to make the lazy eye work harder, it first causes him pain, and later seems to have affected his vision. Those with an interest in folktales may recognise this as being connected to the story of the Fairy Midwife and the Magic Ointment (strangely enough, not a story that, so far as I can recall, Garner has ever retold elsewhere—and he has retold a fair number of folktales over the years). It is after this event that Joe first encounters Thin Amren in the willow copse, whom he can see only if he uncovers his “good” eye.
Who is Thin Amren? He wears a leather hood but is otherwise naked. He has emerged from the marshes, and is clearly a bog-body—a remarkably animated bog-body, by his own admission, and as enigmatic as Treacle Walker in the ways in which he plays with language, although he is clearly mistrustful of Walker in the same way that Treacle Walker will turn out to be concerned about him. As to why Thin Amren comes to be walking around, that’s a matter we’ll return to shortly.
At the moment, I am mistrustful of Garner because this novel is suddenly awash in hints and allusions that don’t seem to quite make sense. What has a magic ointment to do with a resurrected bog-man and a rag-and-bone man. What in all this is significant? If I assume, as I am often told I should, that Garner does everything for a reason, then clearly this narrative confusion is significant in some way. Or is it? This is a question that needs an answer.
It might at this point be pertinent to think more deeply about the references to illness and impairment that abound in this novel. As well as having a “lazy eye,” Joe, we are told, has been ill. We know too that Joe does not like to wear his eyepatch as it seems to upset his vision. So, Joe is ill and Treacle Walker has brought him a cure-all. Which is particularly interesting if we consider the possible derivation of Treacle Walker’s name. Treacle mines and treacle wells are a little-known feature of the English countryside. Unsurprisingly, they did not dispense a black sugary liquid; “treacle” is a corruption of an older word, “triacle,” which is associated with healing. The tramp described himself as a healer, and the treacle wells (such as that at Binsey, just outside Oxford, referred to by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland) reputedly have healing properties. I don’t doubt that Garner is familiar with the existence of Binsey’s treacle well. I certainly find it most interesting that its creation is associated with a Mercian prince, Algar, who was struck by lightning and blinded while searching for Frideswide, an English princess who had refused to marry him, having taken a vow of celibacy. Her prayers allegedly caused the well to come into existence, and the water is later used to heal his blindness. Here, though, I am also thinking about Boneland, and the fact that young Colin was struck by lightning, which apparently damaged his memory. And as I am trying not to be distracted by all these bits of information, I’ve put them in as links so that you can read more if you want to. It is, though a reminder of how difficult it is to disentangle oneself from the flow of information to simply assess the narrative.
At one point Joe takes an eye test to check on his progress. Here, in its most literal sense, we see his second sight in action. One eye can see what is on the eye chart, while the other sees instead a Latin phrase: “This stone is small, of little price: spurned by fools, more honoured by the wise.” We are to take it, I assume, that this refers to the donkey stone and its capacity to repel invaders when it is used to scour a doorstep, but again we might turn back to Elidor, and the four treasures of Elidor, and in particular that house brick, of as little price as a piece of donkey stone.
Treacle Walker’s surname also reminds us once again of just how many of Garner’s novels are centred around walking as a ritual act of “knowing” or claiming the landscape, even as recently as in Boneland, which not only features the adult Colin ritually walking the landscape he has walked for most of his life, but, back in deep time, the original Alderley shaman undertaking a journey on foot from Ludchurch to Alderley. Having said that, Garner’s Strandloper is the novel that most fully expresses the role of walking in his fiction, as William Buckley, transported to South Australia, attempts to walk home, ignorant as he is that Australia is surrounded by ocean, and then falls in with a group of indigenous Australians, who believe him to be their shaman returned to them.
Treacle Walker, however, is a novel marked by immobility, maybe even stasis. There are no long walks here. Joe Coppock is recovering from an unspecified illness and has lately spent a lot of time in bed (we are of course subtly prompted to remember that the young Garner was also, as a child, periodically bedridden with life-threatening illnesses, which he credits for the development of his imagination). There is a sense that Joe is in danger if he even sets foot outside the house. He does not do well in the sun, we are told, and his journeys to the copse to look for the cuckoo are constantly fraught with danger. The longest journey he makes is a journey he may not even have made at all. In a vision Joe sees himself following silver hoofprints across the yard and out into the countryside until they reach a hillock, where the hoofprints stop. Under the ground he can hear the sound of a pipe. But then he wakes to find himself on the hillock in reality. Or possibly not, for when he returns to his house, he finds Treacle Walker inside, talking to Joe’s doppelganger.
(That pipe, a bone flute, belongs to Treacle Walker. Earlier in the novel he let Joe play it, and Joe apparently summoned a cuckoo. Joe is very keen to see a cuckoo because, among other things, he wants to find a cuckoo’s egg (which is nigh on an impossibility, as cuckoos hide their eggs in the nests of other birds). It’s only later that Joe realises how his playing the bone flute has set Thin Amren free from his bonds, to wander the countryside.)
Treacle Walker, like Joe, seems curiously static; even though he owns a horse and cart, he seems to materialise in the yard of Joe’s house, with no sense that he is on his way from or to anywhere, and never quite leaves. Thin Amren’s wandering around is a cause for concern to Treacle Walker, and later it will indeed become imperative that Thin Amren’s body is once again secured to the ground, a task that must be performed by Joe. Travel is something that happens for the most part invisibly, away from the house. How did Joe get to the optician’s for his eye test? There is a train which passes once a day—Joe calls it Noony, because it passes at midday—but it’s never seen, never described, and oddly, it seems to go in only one direction. Only its smoke drifts across the yard.
Indeed, having noted that Thin Amren has become untethered, one might begin to think that much of the novel itself is untethered. Bits of it simply do not fit together. Joe’s house is a puzzle. Apart from Joe, no one is there. He does not mention his parents—perhaps they are both out at work—and no one seems to be looking after him. I actually found this less surprising than some people seem to have done; if we remember Lowdon’s reference to the book feeling curiously dated, in Garner’s day it wouldn’t have that uncommon to leave convalescent children unattended while their mother maybe went next door to the neighbour or went to the local shops. But when Joe attends his eye test he seems to be there on his own, which is more unusual. At the same time I was oddly reminded of Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams (1958), in which a convalescent girl draws a house which she can enter when she’s asleep. The mood of that book is not dissimilar.
The key fact, though, is that Joe himself does not seem to be unduly worried by this state of affairs. It’s perfectly natural to him so the reader must accept it. Likewise, Treacle Walker’s arrival on his doorstep is, to some extent, not particularly surprising. It’s not so long ago that the year’s cycle was marked by the arrival of rag-and-bone men, knife-sharpeners, onion-sellers from France, women hawking clothes pegs and telling fortunes, and it’s clear that Joe understands the ritual exchange of one set of goods for another. When I was a child, rag-and-bone men would often give out artificial flowers or other cheap items as a kind of “payment” for the unwanted articles that they collected.
Which might prompt us to ask another question: what has Treacle Walker really come to collect? Or, to take up the refrain again, who is Treacle Walker? Thin Amren gives us a clue, when he rails at Treacle Walker, calling him a psychopomp; that is, a guide to dead souls. I was not particularly surprised to learn that cuckoos are associated with such guides. More than that, though, in Jungian psychology (and Garner has spoken recently of reading Jung), the psychopomp mediates between the conscious and the unconscious realms, and is personified as a wise man (or woman). This opens up some very interesting possibilities indeed for the reader of Treacle Walker.
Let us suppose that Joe Coppock is not an actual child, but someone else’s memory. Perhaps he lies in the mind of an older Joseph Coppock, a sick man, drifting in and out of consciousness, remembering his earlier years. Or perhaps it is young Joseph’s mind we are permitted to enter, his thoughts mixed up with stories from the comics he so avidly reads. And if Treacle Walker is here to guide Joseph to the afterlife, which afterlife is he headed for?
I’ve noted already the presence of Noony, the noonday train, seen but never heard. But Noony seems also to be associated with the arrival of Treacle Walker. And what else passes once a day? The sun. There is an implication here that Treacle Walker is in some way associated with Helios, the god who drove his chariot across the sky each day. His chariot was pulled by horses, and they were probably white, and like Noony, Helios travels only the one way before vanishing underground at the end of the day, to re-emerge the following morning. But if Treacle Walker is indeed Helios, he seems to have come down somewhat in the world. Helios’s glorious chariot is now a rag-and-bone man’s cart, and there is only one horse left, itself diminished, no more than a pony. All this talk of white horses may of course remind us of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and Cadellin’s role as guardian of Arthur and his knights, and their horses. Cadellin was a watchman, like the Alderley shaman before him, and like Colin after him, and so it turns out was Helios, and also Treacle Walker, though what he is watching for is not entirely clear.
If we accept the implication that Treacle Walker is here to collect Joe and guide him on his way, what then of Thin Amren? The description of Thin Amren’s body should remind us of Tollund Man (though Cheshire, of course, has its own bog body, Lindow Man, found close to where Garner himself lives). Either way, if one accepts the reading of Treacle Walker as an avatar of Helios, from the classical mythological tradition, one might argue that Thin Amren belongs to a different mythology altogether, something rather more northern, more instinctive, a joyful and irreverent counter to the apparent rationality and linguistic precision of Treacle Walker. Thin Amren is a child to Treacle Walker’s austere, world-weary adult. For all they are vying with one another for Joe Coppock’s attention, I don’t think we should read Thin Amren and Treacle Walker as protagonist and antagonist in the conventional sense. They’re competing, yes, but not fighting. It’s tempting instead to read them as two worldviews, each struggling for supremacy, inviting Joe to choose.
Supposing that Joe Coppock is standing in for Garner himself (and I’ve thought for a long time that Garner’s novels are, as much as anything, a way for him to explore elements of his own life, given the fact his novels have shown what I can only describe as a biographical arc) then one might choose to see Treacle Walker as an avatar of the rational, educated Garner (who of course began reading Classics at Oxford though he did not complete his degree) while Thin Amren represents the intuitive child-Garner who roamed Alderley Edge, learning the stories of his forebears. And having said that, it is noticeable that both are deteriorating. Thin Amren is drying out because he has left his bog while Treacle Walker is rag and bones himself. Joe notes several times that Treacle Walker smells terrible, but this is not the stench of an unwashed tramp. Treacle Walker is literally rotting. The healer cannot heal himself.
In the end, perhaps it is incumbent on Joe to reinvigorate Thin Amren’s purpose by once again pinning him to the bog, where he belongs. It’s not clear what has dislodged him other than sheer antiquity, and possibly a failure of belief in his presence and efficacy, whatever it is he represents—a healing of the land, perhaps. Having discharged this task, Joe is then free to leave with Treacle Walker, which we might choose to read as symbolising his death in this world, except that Joseph Coppock doesn’t leave with Treacle Walker; instead he takes over from him. How one might interpret this is anyone’s guess.
All of which is a perfectly workable reading of this novel, except for one thing: there is the vagueness engendered by a mind scattered by the transition from life to death, and there is also just plain untidy writing. As I have noted several times, a number of commentators have justified the narrative bric-a-brac of Treacle Walker as representing the summation of a long and storied career. Why wouldn’t the author revisit old themes? Why not, indeed? Some have suggested that Garner is having fun with what has gone before. And that is also a possibility.
And yet I cannot get rid of the feeling that it would be just as easy to read this novel as an untidy gathering-together of Garner’s greatest hits, so to speak. As you’ve probably realised, one can play “spot the reference” for hours with this novel, but to what purpose? In some situations I would stick my neck out and call this “fan service,” a pandering to the writer’s admirers, but in this instance I might be inclined to call it “self-indulgence,” though the two are frankly very closely related. I’ve tried to steer a course between playing “spot the reference” and making the very necessary connections with the constant themes in Garner’s work, but it’s not easy.
Ever since the beginning of his writing career, Garner has been a richly allusive writer. He has drawn heavily on local landscapes, local history, and folklore for his inspiration, exploring his single square mile of Cheshire in forensic detail, then later expanding his narrative map, following the denizens of Cheshire wherever they went, be they William Buckley in South Australia, or John Turner, the packman in Thursbitch (2003), acting as a representation of the last link in a trade route leading all the way from the Himalayas to a tiny hamlet in the Peak District. (Although while the evocation of the interconnectedness of the world is impressive, I confess I raised an eyebrow at the thought of a Mithraic cult persisting in remotest Cheshire in the eighteenth century.)
Similarly, Garner has ranged back and forth in time. The Stone Book Quartet (1976–8), ostensibly about Garner’s own family—and its cantankerous patriarch, the stonemason, Robert—brought with it the first hint of Garner’s interest in deep time. When Robert takes his daughter, Mary, under Alderley Edge to visit a chamber whose clay floor is marked by thousands of footprints, representing all the Garners who has visited it, we are asked to marvel at this sense of continuity. It is presented as a family rite of passage, although so far as anyone knows, there was no actual family ritual of this sort.
Boneland explored this in uneven detail. It is, bluntly, a very messy novel, to the point where it feels like two different narratives bolted together (which, now I think about it, is rather how I feel about Treacle Walker). On the one hand, we have the story of the mysterious Neolithic shaman, mourning his family who were lost in an icefall somewhere near Ludchurch (an actual place, posited as the setting of the Green Knight’s Chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a text which has heavily influenced much of Garner’s work)—and who have been shockingly preserved within his literal sight by the sheet of ice which killed them and which simultaneously prevents him reaching them to perform the appropriate rites. Communing with the wolf that is his totemic animal, the shaman is compelled to make a perilous journey across country to settle at what is clearly Alderley Edge, to become the first of that long line of watchers.
On the other hand, Boneland also continued the story of Colin, one of the two children who featured in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), now grown to adulthood and living as a hermit on the Edge itself, while barely holding down a job as a research astronomer at nearby Jodrell Bank. Susan, his twin sister, disappeared again at some point after the end of Gomrath, this time for good. Colin believes she disappeared into the Pleiades, and is using the radio telescope to hunt for her. As the novel opens, Susan seems to be trying to return to Colin, perhaps to warn him of danger, although I choose to read this as a projection of Colin’s own middle-aged anxieties. He has not had much of a life, so far as one can tell, having also lost his parents in an air crash prior to his sister’s disappearance, though the most curious part of this story is how Colin’s adoptive parents, the Mossocks, insist, once he loses his memory in a lightning strike, that Susan never existed.
Boneland, then, was very much a novel of two parts: the account of the shaman’s inner turmoil and his journey across the country was an exquisite piece of imagination, while the continuation of Colin’s story was heavily freighted towards recreating the ritual elements of its two prequels but distinctly light when it came to exploring Colin’s considerable trauma in adulthood. The argument might be that Colin is psychologically a child trapped in an adult body, or that what we witness in the sequence involving Colin is the effect of a mind disintegrating under the weight of forty years or more of not knowing what happened. I am prepared to accept this while nonetheless needing to ask why it is that Garner seems to have executed this so clumsily.
And I could, and do, ask the same of Treacle Walker. Because it seems to me that once again we have a novel of two parts. On the one hand, a person who is apparently on the point of death debates the nature of time and the possible existence of an afterlife with two embodied mythic figures; on the other hand, there is a framework of folktales, local history, and dialect which teeters on the brink of being incomprehensible. In the past I might have suggested that Garner was commendably preserving his own history within his work, but as time has gone by, I’ve felt more and more that, as his use of dialect grows more evident, and the dialect itself has become stronger, Garner is using language as a means of keeping readers out rather than inviting them in. Thursbitch was a case in point: parts of the eighteenth-century portion of the story were almost incomprehensible at times. Yes, this might have been how people actually spoke, but in reproducing that faithfully Garner tells us more about himself as a writer than he does about his characters. And the same is true here.
To take one example: when Joe Coppock first meets Treacle Walker, he invites him into the house—bear in mind that thresholds are always a contested place in Garner’s work—and they sit at the fireplace, until a hammering sounds on the door. When Joe investigates, he sees first through the window that there is no one there—outside it is high summer, the yard is quiet, empty but for Treacle Walker’s pony and cart—yet when he opens the door, as the novel so memorably puts it, “night spilled in […] night was in the room, a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall” (p. 2). It’s a powerful moment that resonates with episodes in Thursbitch but most especially with the early episode in Elidor when Roland enters the Mound of Vandwy to rescue his siblings by invoking a memory of the porch of his own house back in Manchester, only to find that when they return home the portal between the two worlds, in the shape of the porch, remains active and the creatures of Elidor now lurk outside his own home, visible but invisible.
But in the aftermath of that, as Joe goes back to the fireplace, Walker says, “It was a hurlothrumbo of winter […] a lomperhomock of night. Nothing more” (p. 15). More Cheshire dialect? A new way to say “fimbulwinter”? Curious, I searched online for the word, and vanished down an intriguing little rabbit hole involving Samuel Johnson of Cheshire, or Maggotty Johnson, as he was later known, who created a spectacle called Hurlothrumbo, which was performed in London, and created a certain amount of scandal. From what little I’ve managed to find out, the play sounds fascinating, and may indeed have some relation to Treacle Walker, but why mention it at that particular point of the story? To defuse a tense moment? Or because Treacle Walker likes to play with words? Because he saw the play when it was first performed (which, if he is as old as I think he is, is very probable)? Or because this is a sign that Treacle Walker’s mind is deteriorating, along with his body? Whatever the reason, what was Garner expecting to happen when he put those words there? If this is wordplay it seems to be very unequal wordplay. This may be Garner having fun, but if so he is having fun at the expense of his reader, surely? Or is he teasing readers, knowing full well they will be hitting Google immediately? Whatever the reason, most of these breadcrumbs feel a little … tiresome?
We have reached the point where critical appraisal struggles to find a way through because there are far too many routes to the end. Every potential flaw can be countered with a proposal that in fact the author might be doing something else. To take an example, the novel’s epigraph is a quotation taken from Carlo Rovelli’s L’ordine del tempo [The Order of Time] (2017): “Il tempo è ignoranca/Time is ignorance.” Rovelli works on quantum mechanics and The Order of Time is a piece of popular science writing that investigates what we understand by “time.” It seems clear from this where Garner wants to lead us, but can invoking quantum mechanics excuse a wobbly plot? Is a chase in and out of comic-book panels a plausible way to explore time? Possibly, and I suppose I could say that we are seeing it through the eyes of a boy, Joe Coppock, so it is unsurprising if it seems simplistically presented. Yet I don’t believe that myself and I don’t think it’s an argument that can stick.
And here we reach the hardest part of this discussion, but nonetheless one that needs to be got through. For a critic, going against the prevailing opinion on a text is fraught with danger. To disagree is to worry that perhaps your critical faculties are at fault. It is uncomfortable to be out of step with everyone else, and yet you have to say what you see. We have already seen that almost all of Garner’s reviewers now back away from anything but the usual bromides. But I have spent enough of my life thinking about Garner’s work, and writing about it, that I am reasonably confident in my opinion, and able to support it with arguments, even if it does go against the prevailing opinion. No work, in my view, is immune to criticism. Treacle Walker is not a bad novel but neither is it a work of towering genius.
You may disagree. Awesome! Now we can talk about it some more. That, for me, is what criticism is about. My job as a critic is to talk about the text, and explore it. Not to promote it by providing quotable nuggets for the back cover of the paperback edition, or to provide feedback to the author. I’ve never really understood why people believe that when they write a review they are addressing the author and providing feedback. The advent of social media and the pruning of publicity budgets may have distorted our perceptions of the nature of this relationship, but I’ve never written for authors. If I am talking about the text I am writing for readers, and to some extent for myself, so I can find out what it is I think about a particular text.
What I think about this particular text is that it is trying very hard, possibly too hard, to do several things, not the least of which is to be an Alan Garner novel. However, its considerable ambition is not always matched by its execution, to the point where, at times, it is opaque, while at other times, in attempting to be a summation of the writer’s career, it runs perilously close to being a bingo-card of the writer’s ongoing preoccupations. To fully achieve its effect, the text requires the reader to be more than an average reader, though even extremely knowledgeable readers are struggling with it. This is not reading as a collaborative effort so much as reading as a full-time research project, and that is not how people generally read. Which feels like another kind of gatekeeping to me.
And then we get to chapter XVIII, the final chapter, where in theory everything is put right. Garner has said many times that when he begins a novel he always know what the last line is, and the entire novel is spent working towards that, and hoping he doesn’t miss. In this instance, I can’t help feeling that Garner knew from the beginning what the last chapter would contain, but struggled to find his way there. Because, even considering how short the novel is, the journey has been arduous, and I have wondered at points whether it was worthwhile. And yet, at the last, in this final chapter there is a sense that Garner has finally stopped messing around, or being playful, or whatever you choose to call it, and is getting down to the business of just writing. It’s not entirely perfect, even now, but the best of it is extraordinary. Paragraph by paragraph, less has become more. Suddenly, Treacle Walker is all terseness, as he instructs Joe in the matter of preparing the five alder withies he will need to pin down Thin Amren, and as he summons Thin Amren from the bog. Thin Amren’s job, we learn, is to sleep in the bog in order to remember Joe and allow him to continue to exist. One assumes this ritual was also at some point performed by Treacle Walker himself. It was Joe who woke Thin Amren, accidentally we assume, or was it at Treacle Walker’s connivance, and so it is Joe who must sacrifice Thin Amren to the bog all over again before he leaves, literally taking up the reins of Treacle Walker’s pony and cart, and disappearing towards evening.
But one can’t help wondering how long it will be before Joe’s youthful vigour is ground down by the demands of Treacle Walker’s job, and he takes to plodding along as Treacle Walker seems to have done. I can’t help feeling that here, at the end, rationality still trumps instinct, and the old wild magic of intuition is rejected in favour of the more reliable but less interesting magic of Newtonian science. Even quantum mechanics cannot save Joe from the literally quotidian routine of the day. This seems an oddly downbeat ending, yet it is entirely characteristic of Garner’s work, because this is what happens every time. Garner may valorise the old magic but inevitably he, or his characters, rejects it, as though there is no permanent place for it in the world, because it is too unpredictable. Not even death, or a flirtation with quantum mechanics, offers respite.
Which brings us back to the critic, writing. There are many forms of critical writing, as I’ve already noted. I could have opted for the “rationality” of academic writing, and dragged up the big guns of “theory” to make a point or two. I didn’t, for a couple of reasons. The first is that while Strange Horizons is a semi-formal venue I see it as a place where I speak to fellow readers who are trying to figure out what is going on, and as such, intensely academic writing doesn’t seem to me to fit with that kind of conversation. The second is that at this stage I still don’t know what kind of theorising I want to bring into play. I’ve taken a postcolonial reading of some of Garner’s novels in the past, and I think that could be productive if I wanted to dig further into Garner’s habit of appropriation, but I’m not sure that would suit Treacle Walker at this stage. In the future, I could, and very well might, take a reading of Treacle Walker through theories of myth. It would suit the book very well, I think, and indeed, Garner’s broader approach to fiction. And I was entirely serious in my nod to Bakhtin earlier.
However, on this occasion, I opted for something a little more “instinctive,” teasing out themes and ideas, finding and testing links, sketching in arguments to follow up later. And, to some extent, I tried to write about the reception of Treacle Walker, and examine the dialogue among other reviewers. As it turns out, there seems not to have been dialogue so much as a nervous toeing of a party line, which is interesting in itself, although I profoundly disagree with that party line. As I’ve noted, disagreeing is very much part of the critical process. And reviews are part of the critical process too, even if, in this instance, they do not offer that much critical insight into the novel.
And it is the insight I’m in search of, both when I read criticism and when I write it. I’m not interested in whether X likes a novel, any more than you should be interested in whether I dislike a novel. The questions should always be, “What is this piece of fiction doing, does it work, and if not, why not?” Everything else unfolds from that.