Book Review: Treacle Walker — Alan Garner
It’s that time of year again — the time when I walk into Waterstones and say, “Hi, yes, I used to work here many years ago. You might remember me. Please could I have half price on all six of the books shortlisted for the Booker prize?” And because Waterstones employees are pathologically incapable of refusing a customer anything, no matter how outrageous, they give me the discount. And then I approach the wall where said employee has carefully balanced one copy of each nominated book in a special Booker display, and I remove all of them. “Sorry I destroyed your display,” I say. “No, that’s absolutely fine, don’t worry about it,” they reply, and we both think silently about the current minimum wage.
I’m digressing here, partly in an effort to avoid writing about Treacle Walker, the first of the six I picked up. I’m going to try reading all six before the winner is announced next month, so I thought I’d start with the shortest. But I didn’t expect it to be that short. When a slow reader and bad flier such as myself can finish a book during a two-hour flight, this is something to note. There’s nothing wrong with a short book, of course — brevity is the soul of wit, and a succinct book can feel like that quiet friend of yours whose occasional comments are always worth listening to. But this book was both short and terrible, rather like that quiet friend of yours whose occasional comments are spectacularly inane.
The headline regarding Treacle Walker is that its author Alan Garner is the oldest Booker-shortlisted author ever, and let me tell you, as a reader you really feel each one of his 87 years. Like the demented ramblings of your favourite great-uncle, this book keeps hinting at a continuous thread but always comes up short.
The plot follows Joseph Coppock, who is a young boy, but interestingly we are told this by the blurb rather than the story itself (on reflection, I enjoyed reading the blurb quite a lot more). Joseph lives in a house in the countryside where he is visited by Treacle Walker, some form of folkloric spirit rag-and-bone man. Joseph trades his pyjamas and a lamb’s shoulder bone with Treacle Walker for a donkey stone, which he uses to travel through his mirror to stop the characters from his comic books from coming into his world and attacking him.
I’m not joking. This is the plot. It is imaginative, I’ll give Alan that one. And I normally like media which is unapologetically weird. But because it’s so random, so unexplained, it’s just unsatisfying to read. Also, the way the story is told is immensely frustrating:
It’s all like this, but in particular all of the conversations. Clearly Alan is evoking the riddling folklore figures of British pastoral tradition, but whereas, for example, the Lord of the Rings’s Tom Bombadil is a faintly annoying diversion from the story, Treacle Walker is the titular character, and his (to quote the blurb) “mysterious friendship" with Joseph is the central element of the book.
This review is being a bit cruel, I know, but while reading I really wanted to be getting something out of this book. The whole setup was just so unusual that it was interesting in and of itself, and I so wanted there to be some spectacular paragraph which tied everything together or stuck in my memory or just did something, but the book flew by and it never came.
What did come is the twist. I won’t spoil it for you (as I expect this review has made you eager to race out and buy the book), but you already know the twist I’m talking about. It’s the one that happens in every book and film where some kind of twist is needed but little thought has been put into it before the end. It’s one which has already been used in a recent Booker winner, and which I’m pretty sure is the premise of another of this year’s nominees. When it comes, it is at least told simply and not in riddle form, and I found it moving, in the way that an unusually-shaped rock is moving after hours of walking through a desert. But I wouldn’t say there was any real emotional payoff.
Folklore is an awesome genre, rich in character, admiring of nature, and interested in the relationship between the two. But there is little of that in Treacle Walker. What’s left is something which is “Spare and allusive…luminous and understated" (The New Statesman) and “Cryptic, evocative" (TLS) with “deep feeling on every page" (The Daily Telegraph). In other words, what the hell was all that about?