Treacle Walker, shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, is superficially notable for two things. It contains the fewest number of words of any of this year’s shortlisted titles, and its author, Alan Garner, is the oldest ever to be nominated — his 88th birthday falls on the same day the Booker winner is announced.
Garner is also the sole British writer on the shortlist, which seems especially relevant because of the potent blend of British folklore and mythology which characterises his work. The author grew up in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, and still lives in the county, in a late-medieval house — a former medicine hall — that he purchased in 1957.
His abiding, almost psychic sense of the land and of its history gives rise to the “rural magic realism” permeating all of his work, from his first book, the children’s fantasy The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) to novels such as 1967’s The Owl Service, based on an ancient Welsh myth, and Thursbitch (2003), a story set in the Pennines during the 18th century and the present day.
Treacle Walker is spare, supple and intense at just over 150 pages, and its themes will be familiar to Garner aficionados: a sensitive, lonely child, ordinary-seeming yet talismanic objects, unseen forces shaping the past, present and future. Yet there is always something unexpected in Garner’s work: a quality that is both perturbing and cleansing.
The titular Treacle Walker is a stranger with “green violet eyes”, a dirty man on a cart driven by a white pony, calling out for “rag and bone” for which he will give “pot and stone”, and who turns up at the house in the valley that is the home of a young boy named Joe Coppock. He speaks in riddles, aphorisms and puns, to which Joe reacts with the more prosaic “Bleeding heck!”. That Joe lives by himself, constantly rearranging his “museum” of foraged and found items, is never explained. He marks the hours by “Noony”, the midday train rushing past each day.
Joe gives the stranger a pair of old pyjamas and a lamb shoulder bone, and receives in exchange a cup and a stone decorated with the slim chalk outline of a horse. Joe has an affliction — a “lazy eye” — the result, he learns, of “the glamourie” or charm that enables him to see beyond the illusory nature of time (the book’s epigraph “Time is ignorance” is a quote from the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli) and into the everlasting moment.
Thus, in nearby woods, Joe encounters another stranger, a millennia-old bogman called Thin Amren, who sits up in the watery marsh and remarks, conversationally: “What sees is seen.” In the surrounding hollows and meadows Joe hears the sound of invisible hooves and pipers. He charts the call of an elusive cuckoo, to no avail: “Nothing. No one. Only loss.” His solitude is wrenching.
Joe’s predicament, this world sorrow, is reminiscent of the troubled Tom in Garner’s Red Shift (1973), another work based on quantum physics, whose forays into the civil war period and Roman Britain are an escape from problems in his own world. It is hard, too, to not to think of Garner himself, growing up in the 1940s, especially when he inserts a popular comic of the period — Knockout — into the narrative and has Joe battle with “Kit the Stoneage Brit” in a hall-of-mirrors chase with his pursuers “Whizzy Whiz and the Brit Bashers”, a conceit that manages to be both fun and menacing.
Joe is both child and old man; he and Treacle Walker are — perhaps — interchangeable. The word “treacle” comes from Middle English “triacle”, meaning a salve or palliative, and this is a book of healing and of wonder. Inexpressibly moving, its conclusion — a neatly executed reversal of time — is simultaneously a balm and a valediction.
Treacle Walker by Alan Garner, Fourth Estate £10, 160 pages
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