ALan Garner’s novels are usually broken down into his hugely successful children’s books – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor, The Owl Service and The moon of Gomrath – and his writing for adults – TThe Stone Book Quartet, thursday bitch and strandloper, which are at least thematically more difficult and unworldly (Garner is always a writer of extremely clear and readable prose). I spoke to Ruth Ozeki and Karen Joy Fowler at a recent event, and after mentioning Garner in my talk, I was surprised none of them had read – or even heard of – him. They asked me where to start and I suggested the wonderful, time-collapsing REd Shiftmostly because I feel like it captures the best of each of Garner’s worlds: the magic of his children’s literature and the emotional and philosophical complexities of his adult work.
Garner’s latest novel, Syrup Walker, also belongs in this hybrid space. She, too, is concerned with time. In fact, the theme of time seems to be the theme underpinning much of his later work – how we experience it, how we might reshape or change our relationship with it. “Time is ignorance” is the motto of Carlo Rovelli’s book, and the novel is essentially a response to this idea and seeks to ask how we would experience the world if we were able to escape from the straitjacket of time step out Garner lives in a medieval medicine house on a site that has been inhabited for 10,000 years and is a stone’s throw from the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that he’s returning to the subject of time.
Joe, our hero, is a child who leads a strange and restricted existence. He was unwell, he says, and wears a band-aid to correct a sluggish look. His parents are not in sight, and he measures the days by watching Noony, the train, travel through the valley below. One day, a ragman named Treacle Walker shows up and offers Joe a mug and a rock in exchange for old pajamas and a lamb shoulder bone. Joe’s name is written on the mug, the stone is inscribed with a picture of a horse. This is classic Garner territory: obscure but resonant objects, a present that feels connected to a mythical past, a questioning child trying to unravel the mysteries of a world gone haywire, a landscape brimming with meaning.
Joe wanders out into the swampy woods behind his house, where he encounters Thin Amren, a naked man with copper-colored skin and a leather hood. This swampman informs Joe that his lazy eye is the result of “the glamor” – a gift that allows him to see time collapse and perceive the eternal in the now. Joe’s adventures see him drawn into a comic’s mirror world, where he battles Whizzy Wizard and the Brit Bashers alongside Kit the Ancient Brit. In these battles he is aided by the visits of the genius Treacle Walker, old and young at the same time, with his “green-purple” eyes and face, like “those clever postcards that change as you look”.
The inflammatory energy of seemingly disposable comics is combined with the power of myth, and both express truths found in cutting-edge science. This is a book about quantum physics as well as ancient lore. Garner always suggested that there was essentially only one story, and this novel, published in his 87th year, contains all the exuberance and eccentricity, all the deep thought and resonant mythology of his best work. At the end of his life, Philip Roth wrote the extraordinary Nemesisa book that felt like a conversation between the author and his younger self, an attempt to encapsulate a lifetime’s sorrows in a single novel. Syrup Walker does something similar, and crams more ideas and imagination into its 150-odd pages than most writers manage in their entire career.