A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like thousands of other British children, I grew up reading the novels of Alan Garner with a shiver and an open-mouthed desperation to work out what was going on. He delivered moments of horror in unsettling fantasy that still makes me a bit nervous about rereading The Moon of Gomrath, or The Owl Service. I found Red Shift inexplicable when I had to read it for school, and Elidor somehow passed me by. I borrowed The Stone Book from a friend, loved it, wanted to read it again some years later but had forgotten the title so I could never find it again. My fixation was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and (cautiously) The Moon of Gomrath. Two years ago when I read that Garner had produced a sequel to The Weirdstone and Gomrath, I made a note. And promptly lost it, and only remembered in a bookshop in Oxford last winter when I saw two very slim volumes at eye-height under G in Fantasy: Boneland and Strandloper. The first was the sequel, and the second I had never heard of. Nor had anyone else, because it looked like a remaindered copy, dated 1996, faded and torn on one corner. I bought both, took them home for the reading pile, and forgot them again. All this forgetting seems as if my mind was trying to keep me away from Garner, but I’m glad I persevered and remembered.
I read Strandloper some time after Christmas, an interesting time of year to read about parching thirst, and the stench and noise of the prisoners’ deck in a ship sailing to Australia in 1803. William Buckley is a Cheshire man who follows the rituals of his village and countryside, and is also learning to read and write. His teacher is the son of the manor, who also takes notes as William and the other youths and girls of the village casually, carefully, enact the old dances and rhyming games that have always been around, and are always what get performed at these times in the year. The high points of these rituals is when they deck the church with oaken boughs taken from the estate, and the minister blesses them. William practices his writing by copying texts that his friend brings from the manor library. Unfortunately, these are old tracts from a political period that are now considered seditious. The act of learning to write is itself suspicious, for a man in William’s place, and so, when the lord of the manor arrives enraged at the church to find where his torn-down boughs have been brought, William is arraigned, and the sedition in his handwriting causes him to be transported.
The prisoners’ voyage is grim, but full of fellowship. William teaches the prisoners his Cheshire dances and songs, and something important happens in his mind that seems like an aberration from a different world. He speaks in a new voice, just for a moment. The voyage continues, they are landed on Tasmania, fortifications are built, and land taken in (in the agricultural sense) for planting and settling. William is determined to escape, but is the only one of his friends to survive the break-out. He walks and walks, nearly dies, finds water, realises he has walked around the entire island, and walks into the bush, and nearly dies again. He is found by a local inhabitant, and the story moves into vagueness. There is fever and recovery and William’s transformation into an Aboriginal shaman and ritual keeper, because he is an adept at dance and ritual singing. He becomes a new voice and spirit self, the one who had visited him on board ship when he approached his ancestral country.
Thirty years later, when William is the spirit leader of his people, the white settlers bring trouble, and the young men go to meet it. William remembers enough English to negotiate, and this act returns him to his lost other half, which also shows him the way to go back to Cheshire. The ending is not what you might expect: this is not a lost lovers’ romance. It’s based on a true story, and is an escape from the terrors of barbarism, which has a white face, hears nothing and wears clothes. The importance of danced ritual and walking the land emerges in this story like a whale’s back in a grey sea: moments when you realise, so THAT’s what this is about. But although Strandloper might seem a bit woolly and mystic, it is precise in its details.
Garner tells his stories through people speaking. William chants on and off-page, so to speak, and the talk between him and his friends moves the story on and fills in the descriptive detail. We don’t need much more. In Boneland there is even more dependency on talk. Colin is a professor of astrophysics with PhDs in several other abstruse subjects, and he talks precisely to use words with the right meaning because he is on the Asperger’s spectrum. He also knows everything that has happened to him, in fixed, recorded detail, since he was thirteen. Before that his life is a blank. For him this is terrifying. For readers with long memories, The Moon of Gomrath and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen fill in this gap as records of Colin’s adventures with his sister, friendly dwarves, magical creatures and truly terrifying evil things, in which he encountered Merlin, the sleeping Arthur, and became part of fated movements to waken the sleepers at time of the world’s ending. There is a balance to be kept, and in Boneland Colin is still aware of a balance, but he’s much more aware of the fact that he is mad by the standards of his time. Until he is sent to Meg, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist on a motorbike, who won’t make things easy for him, and won’t be messed around by his over-intelligent truth games. Colin is haunted by hints from space, the Pleiades to be exact, that his sister is coming back to him, that he must keep things balanced. Meg is nothing if not grounded, and digs into court and newspaper records to show Colin what happened just before he was thirteen. All this is narrated in interspersed sections with Colin’s agonising struggle to make connections with hidden memory, are the struggles of a Mesolithic shaman to sing the stars into their dances across the sky, and to walk to the lands in the grip of an icy winter to ensure than the sun comes back. Flint-knapping, cave-painting and cave-crawling have their echoes in Colin’s obsessive measurements of the stars’ courses, and pinpointing of exactly where his sister’s voice is coming from, through the concave forms of the observatory dishes on Alderley Edge, Cheshire, or in the old adits in the quarry where he keeps his wine and lives in a mail-order wooden hut.
Is all this bonkers? Colin walks the woods of the Edge capped and hooded in the white tie, blue silk and sweeping academic robes of a DSc (the highest science degree any British university can give), and he won’t go near the great boulder that Meg finds so compelling. A mysterious taxi driver called Bert is always on hand to take Colin home, or to bring him to Meg when he’s terrified out of his wits. Meg is so abrasive she has to be a good person, but might she also be a figment of Colin’s imagination? Might she even be the Morrigan? The paradoxes in Colin’s behaviour and the opaque, mesmeric dialogue and crackling tension make this a very strange story, and absolutely not a triumphant sequel to the earlier childrens’ novels. I did not reread The Moon of Gomrath before reading Boneland, and I’m not sure that it would have helped if I had, because the tones of the two novels, separated by over 50 years, are so different. But there are still frightening things happening in the tunnels in the rock, and stones have huge importance, either in the hand or underfoot. I think Colin is the same person, and I think that what Garner is doing in Boneland makes a beautiful, fixated sense. You just have to come at the story from a different direction.
Alan Garner, Strandloper (1996, The Harvill Press, 1-86046-161-1); Boneland (2012, Fourth Estate, 978-0007463251)
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.