The story begins in a village in England when a mythical figure called Dead Papa Toothwort wakes. The subject of an age-old children’s rhyme (“Say Your Prayers and Be Good Too, or Dead Papa Toothwort Is Coming for You”), “He has been in story form in every bedroom of every house of this place. He is in them like water.”
Likewise, they are in him. Dead Papa Toothwort is enlarged by listening, filled with the villagers’ disembodied voices, rendered here in weaving, wandering type, erratic snippets of gossip, conversation, observation: “Human sound, tethered to his interest, dragged across the field, sucked into his great need.”
In this farrago of language, Dead Papa Toothwort’s “English symphony,” we first hear, “clear and true, the lovely sound of his favourite. The boy.” Lanny.
This is what Lanny’s Mum hears: “The sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath. My singing child.”
In Max Porter’s first book, “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” his “symphony” was thinner, confined to a household (haunted by another mythical figure, Crow). Here, every villager with a view of Lanny possesses a voice, the registers ranging from the basso profundo of Dead Papa Toothwort to the shrill notes of a nasty old neighbor, for whom Lanny is a “right little knob skipping about like he was a fairy princess.”
Of course, Lanny’s Mum (Jolie) and Lanny’s Dad (Robert) have the most to say, along with “Mad” Pete, a mostly retired old artist, but when the story heats up, the voices multiply, remarking, conjecturing, having their say in short order and in such a way that the reader must (and mostly can) guess who’s speaking.
Mum and Dad are recent arrivals in the village, Jolie an out-of-work actress who’s writing a crime novel, “making terrible things up to entertain people,” and Robert, an “asset manager” who commutes to London, “a city slicker who wouldn’t know a cow from a boar.” Pete, because of his provocative past work, occupies a precarious place in the village’s imagination.
Put these together with our views of Lanny — variously, a “poppet” and a “wandering waif,” a “bringer of strange dreams, skipping about the wide open village” who “seems almost possessed” and “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say,” such as, “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?” and who is “building a bower. … Like bowerbirds do … a camp full of all the best stuff I’ve found, like a tiny museum of magic things” — and you might have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.
But what happens, however harrowing and suspenseful, is not really the point in such a bravura performance — of language and understanding at their outer and innermost limits. If only we might see Lanny, as Dead Papa Toothwort does: “Young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key.”
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin and edits and consults through the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
By: Max Porter.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 210 pages, $24.
Event: In conversation with Fiona McCrae. 7 p.m. Monday, Grace-Trinity Community Church, 1430 W. 28th St., Mpls