No writer’s body of work is more densely connected yet sparely wrought than Alan Garner’s – connected not just to himself and the land, through stories of a long-rooted Cheshire family who “knew their place”, but to myth and folklore, flowing through the children’s fantasies that made his name. In the 1970s, Red Shift and The Stone Book Quartet were boundary markers between his children’s and adult books (though Garner wouldn’t recognise a distinction). Over the following decades he honed his clipped, enigmatic style, and, with the exception of Strandloper, a foray into Indigenous Australian dreamtime, stayed in the environs of his beloved Alderley Edge, digging and deepening. In 2012, half a century after the first two volumes, Boneland was an unexpected conclusion to his Weirdstone trilogy; the source material transfigured into an adult novel about loss, pain, knowledge and madness that reached not only across the chasm of a human lifetime, but back millennia into the stone age. Garner is now 87; in 2018, a fragmentary memoir, Where Shall We Run to?, conjured his early years with an extraordinary immediacy, as though stepping again into the river of childhood.
Few people expected another novel – and yet, like all his books, Treacle Walker feels as inevitable as it does surprising. Garner’s work has always been hard to classify, here more than ever: this tiny fable, hewn from elements of children’s story, myth, alchemical texts, old rhymes and cartoons, has an implacable directness, as though still channelling the childlike viewpoint of his memoir.
Joe Coppock, a convalescent boy, is alone in the house when Treacle Walker comes calling. We have heard his cry before, in Where Shall We Run to?, when the rag and bone man passes by: “Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags? Pots for rags! Donkey stone!” Garner heard it from his childhood sickroom, after the illnesses that nearly killed him. But now the donkey stone – a scouring block used to shine the front steps – becomes a talismanic object in a fairytale exchange, along with an empty medicine pot, which helps Joe to realise his visionary potential.
Though Joe at first considers him “daft as a brush”, and smelly to boot, Treacle Walker – who comes to the threshold again and again, in fairytale fashion, waiting to be invited in – is a mythic figure, whose wanderings help to keep the world turning. (As ever with Garner, the mythic and universal are birthed from the specific and local: a friend of his, writing in the 2016 festschrift First Light, remembers their discussion of one Walker Treacle, “the healer tramp from Holywell Green, who could cure anything but jealousy”.) And Joe’s lazy eye, for which he must wear a patch, is a signifier of “the glamourie”. When his good eye is uncovered, he can see past surface reality and speak to the mummified iron age man Thin Amren, who sits up out of the bog near Joe’s house telling him to: “Move the dish clout and shut your glims.”
The danger in this book comes from the comic that taught Garner to read, his childhood favourite Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, “who was always fighting Whizzy the Wicked Wizard and his chums the Brit Bashers”. It’s a risky strategy, but Garner summons an ominous power from the jaunty font that the characters’ easy-reading threats are rendered in – “BIFF HIM FOR THAT BRICK AND POT HE’S GOT” – as they burst right out of the page. If Boneland was an adult reckoning with the material behind The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Treacle Walker reads like a feverish companion to Elidor: a visionary boy, a spare, dreamlike landscape, forces of darkness banging against the porch, the half-heard sound of distant music. In that novel, fairytale treasures become a broken teacup or a bit of iron railing. The totems of Garner’s later work are usually geologically enduring: flint or stone. Here they are child-sized and humbly human – a marble, a tiny Victorian pot – but no less powerful for that.
Along with these artefacts, Garner also excavates the argot of a 1940s Cheshire boyhood. It’s a plain language, but scattered with idiom and slang; Joe’s optician says “shufti” and “ticketyboo”, “wonky” and “squiffy”. Thin Amren is brusquely colloquial: “I’d not trust that one’s arse with a fart.” Treacle Walker, meanwhile, speaks in riddles peppered with nonsense, delighting in codes and puzzles and the mouthfeel of each vanished word: scapulimancer, whirligig, hurlothrumbo. His airy rhetoric is often punctured by matter-of-fact Joe; the chimney, Treacle declares, is a liminal space – the way between “the Earth, the heavens and the sapient stars”. “It’s to let smoke out,” says Joe.
As a child confined to bed, finding a world in the ceiling above him, Garner “played with time as if it were chewing gum … I had to”. All his work is fascinated by the inner time of dream and vision, as well as deep geological time and the eternal present of myth, but Boneland explored scientific reasoning behind “the impossibility of now”. In Treacle Walker, discussions of subatomic particles give way to koans. The epigraph is taken from theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli: “Time is ignorance.” Rovelli believes that it’s a mistake to pursue our sense of time in physics alone – that it’s linked to human brain structure. Or as Garner has it here: “What’s out is in. What’s in is out.”
Treacle Walker is a circular narrative, made of smaller interlocking circles, with actions and whole paragraphs repeating: in its end is its beginning. This late fiction also works the seam opened up in Garner’s very first novel, inspired by the story handed down to his grandfather about enchanted sleepers under Alderley Edge. Garner has always been explicit about the moment of rupture that kickstarted his imagination: alienation by academic opportunity from his family’s deep oral culture. Loss and abandonment permeate his writing, from the horn Colin hears at the end of The Moon of Gomrath, “so beautiful that he never found rest again”, to the snatch of train station graffiti that inspired Red Shift: “not really now not anymore”. In Treacle Walker, Joe wakes from a dream of music under the hill to be left with “Nothing. No one. Only loss.” Yet this playful, moving and wholly remarkable work is also about being found, as Treacle Walker finds Joe – and as Joe finds his difficult destiny. There’s a life’s work inside this little book.
• Treacle Walker is published by 4th Estate (£10). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.