Even before I finished Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker, which is longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, I predicted that the critics would have called it a fable. Any short experimental novel, and in this case fantastical as well, is referred to as a fable.
Garner’s use of language in this odd little fable is sometimes perplexing. Since I had no context for the oft-repeated words “ragbone” and “donkey stone,” I thought Alan Garner, the brilliant children’s writer, was writing a post-apocalyptic fable. “Is he thinking of Ridley Walker?” I asked myself, because Treacle Walker is the name of one of the main characters.
“Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!” This is the recurring cry of Treacle Walker as he drives his pony cart from place to place. I was repulsed by the idea of “ragbone,” until I looked it up online and learned that it refers to the British rag-and-bone man who travels in a cart and buys rags (discarded clothes) and bones (from which glue is made). And a donkey stone – another word which flummoxed me – turns out to be a scouring stone.
This rather static book has a dream-like atmosphere. The main character, Joe, a sickly boy with eye problems, lives alone in the chimney of his house. Why alone and in the chimney I do not know. (Maybe it is a post-apocalyptic novella after all, though it’s more likely some English fairy tale reference.) Thrilled by the appearance of the rag-and-bone man, Joe trades an old pair of pajamas and “a lamb’s shoulder blade he had picked from a mole hill by the railway embankment” for a pretty, almost empty jar the size of his hand, labelled “Poor Man’s Cream,” and a donkey stone.
Both items are magical: the donkey stone rubbed on the steps keeps intruders out of the house, and the Poor Man’s Cream makes one of Joe’s eyes see what no one else can see: it confers “glamourie” (the faery glamour). Strange things happen. Joe sees a bog man no one else can see. And the characters in his comic books literally leap off the page and give chase through the mirror. (I was afraid Joe would get stuck in the mirror.)
Garner’s prose is polished and spare, but let’s hope Treacle Walker comes with a glossary when it is published in the U.S. As a lifetime Anglophile, I have finally been stumped by British English. The “craven nidget” turns out to be a “craven idiot.” But what was I to make of the following? “It was a hurlothrumbo of winter. A lomperhomock of a night. Nothing more.” Wikipedia says that Hurlothrumbo; or, The super-natural is an 18th-century English nonsense play by the dancing-master Samuel Johnson of Cheshire, published in 1729. . And I was unable to find “lomperhomock.”
I would not be surprised if Treacle Walker won the Booker Prize, nor would I object, because I loved Garner’s children’s books. But this novella seems a bit precious to me.