I suggest this blog is read only by those who have already read Alan Garner’s Booker-shortlisted novel Treacle Walker. As there will be as many interpretations of the book as there are readers, I would not want to spoil the experience for anyone.
When I finished reading Treacle Walker by Alan Garner for the first time, I confessed on Twitter to not having ‘got it’. This came as a shock, as I had expected to love it.
The response to this was interestingly polarised: some agreed with relief, others disagreed with a passion, but few could put into words precisely why they felt the way they did about Treacle Walker. One or two folk then went so far as to say said that they would not now buy the book because of my initial knee-jerk reaction. That really bothered me: I would hate to put any reader off buying any book, let alone a book by a favourite author, Alan Garner. All reading is subjective after all and even Garner himself is reluctant to say what his books are about, leaving that to his readers to determine. Encouraged by several friends on Twitter, I decided to persevere and try to fathom what it was that had made me react as I did.
To summarise, I found the book too divergent from my anticipated ‘treat’ read to enjoy. I found parts of it alienating – and in places it drew me back to times of my life I cannot recall with any fondness. I felt left behind by the crafted cleverness of the book from time to time and unsure whether the author would care about this – or the opposite. It was an unforgettable but unsettling read.
Alan Garner played a huge part in shaping my childhood and adolescent psychology through books such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service and Red Shift. Brought up in that 1960s/70s era of Garner and Cooper and le Guin. I believed (and beneath a thin veneer of sensible adulthood still believe) in the kind of magic they fashioned so well: the magic of parallel worlds and thin places; of primeval forces only partly understood by young people who have the power to act for good or evil, and who often have that choice forced upon them. (J K Rowling clearly read them all too, but let’s not dwell on that…)
Since then, other than his excellent memoir Where shall we run to, I have not read Garner’s more recent works, and this may well be my issue. I was hoping to revisit some childhood joys through Treacle Walker but what I got instead was something darker, something which has evolved far beyond: magic, yes – but this is omega magic, not alpha.
Treacle Walker is a deliberately spare and (I would argue) incomplete book. Chapters have gulfs of incomprehension between them, perhaps deliberately intended as disconnected moments of lucidity, perhaps not. I found myself wondering, churlishly, if anyone else would have been able to publish this slim volume at all, let alone make the Booker shortlist. These days it is the job of a battalion of agents and editors to make sure that a book emerges complete into the world: a whole ready-to-eat meat pie, not a bag of ingredients for pastry and directions to the local slaughterhouse. Garner has had the clout and the nerve to resist this pressure and to do what he wants but many of us are unused to such challenging and experimental writing as this. It made me think, but not always in a good way.
Wading into Treacle Walker felt a little like reading Kit Williams’ golden hare-hunt Masquerade for the first time: all the clues are there, reader, so now it’s down to you to find the treasure. As the reader’s own response directs the individual’s take on Treacle Walker, I was reminded of a favourite Freeman Tilden quote from the 1950s, meanings are in people, not things.
Garner also uses a great wadge of Latin early on, presented for some reason as an optometric chart. I am of the last generation to ‘do’ Latin at school, so could approximate a translation as I read, but I must surely be in a minority. How many readers must have given up then, alienated? Why does any book have to become a test of intellectual staying power? Bother to delve further and the same words are, apparently, to be found inscribed on the Philosopher’s Stone created by Carl Jung: very clever, but really, what is the point of it all?
Even though some way further on Treacle Walker approximates a translation of this Latin chart/inscription, he renders exilis as ‘small’ (which would surely be more parvum?) whereas its meaning here should be more ‘thin’ or ‘slight’. This thinness, this boundary between different worlds of consciousness which wear away as life draws to a close, is central to the book. Why say small here, not thin? Is it just to see if anyone notices a deliberate error? If so, at this point the double-bluffing cleverness of it all has lost me. This is a provocative book in the original Latin sense of the word, pro vocare, to call forth a voice.
I was also deeply uncomfortable with the voices – the painful memories – which reading Treacle Walker evoked for me personally. The final section I found I was reading with breath held and in dread.
Why? Well, treacle will always be bitter-sweet stuff. It is the slightly sinister aftertaste of Halloween scones. It is the sticky, dark interior of Christmas cake and plum pudding, loved by some, loathed by others. And anyone who has spent time with someone who is dying will know that the smell (or stink, for let words be nice) of death is sweet and, yes, treacly. It catches in the back of the throat. It remains in the nose and in the tiny cavities of the brain, for weeks, even months after the bereavement, so that long after you know you cannot, you think you can still smell it. Alan Garner must have encountered that smell of death on many occasions in his long life. It is not something often spoken of, nor is it something ever forgotten.
This above all, I think, is what made me reject the book at first exposure. I instantly read Joe as the soul of a dying man (and by extension the bogman Thin Amren as his body). Joe lives alone in a house which consists of just three rooms. (My own remembered childhood home is now a labyrinth of rooms and mock-Tudor timbering surrounded by box hedges. It smells of peas, and the giant summer house nearby of TCP. How about your own?) Early memories are richly sensory yet illogical. They are the last we review before we die.
This scene-setting reminded me of L’Enfant de la Haute Mer, The Child of the High Seas, the brilliant short story by the Franco-Uruguayan surrealist writer Jules Supervielle, where a child lives alone in an empty submarine village, a child conjured into life by a sailor longing for his family.
The chimney and hearth at the centre of Joe’s three rooms may represent a gateway to heaven, or to whatever comes next, at any rate. Treacle Walker – the boatman across the Styx? – and Joe face each other over its ‘cold ash’ – a nod to cremation and the phoenix-like cuckoo whose forboding song reverberates about the book? This hearth itself seems to represent sanctuary and perhaps the route from the limbo of purgatory to the next stage of the afterlife, but this, unexpectedly, is not where the book leads us. Amid the turbulence of dying, when Joe admits (Latin again – to allow to enter or to give in and comply) the possibility of death after it raps three times at his door, the chimney remains the still heart of the house – and Treacle Walker looks up it, with longing, in the final pages.
Joe, standing on the threshold of death, is then tested and judged as worthy in some way, from his selection of a small and insignificant grail-like chipped pot among much fine and fancy china. The pot contains a green-violet ointment, the colour of Treacle Walker’s own eyes. Joe’s dying is compounded with the frailnesses of early childhood – a lazy eye, being poorly, the need to stay out of the sun: heat and old meat don’t marry, says Treacle Walker.
That smell again.
The traces of ointment in the pot give the boy, quite literally, double vision. Joe now has the ability to see beyond the humdrum into a terrifying alternate reality where his very soul may be in danger. His troublesome Lindow Man of a body (Thin Amren) will not settle down to sleep/die and in the end Joe must stake him/it down with alder in the treacly bog. Even though Thin Amren greets him as his beloved – it becomes clear that Thin Amren sees Joe himself as Whirligig, an eternal energy which remains constant as life and time and water swirl around it – as good a definition of a soul as any. Thin Amren does not resist his final ending, but Joe still weeps as his old body drowns into eternal rest.
There are allusions to morphine within the text too, notably the reference to giant poppies transforming from young greenery to rattling seed heads. As she lay dying, her passage soothed by morphine, my own mother thought she was walking through a pine forest. When they substituted a synthetic morphine at one point through shortage of supply, her dreams lost that natural quality which so comforted her in her last days. Morphine is just heroin in a white coat, after all.
The ritual of the donkey stone burnishes the threshold of Joe’s consciousness and gives him an illusion of control, but death continues to stalk him and eventually, inevitably, enters the house. The block capital comic-book antics of Joe’s subconscious – Wizzy and the Brit Bashers etc – I found as nonsensical and difficult to digest as the Roald Dahl/BFG-style neologisms, but perhaps that is the point – the dying brain is not logical.
This thin book is Dantesque in ambition. It leads us through a comic-book inferno and a boggy purgatorio but it is Treacle Walker, his own genie-like capacities reversed by Joe. Treacle Walker is enabled to continue to paradiso instead while Joe joyfully takes the ragbone man’s place as the ‘ferryman’, settling for an exploration of that thin place which lies between heaven and hell as his eternity.
Is this Garner telling us that that is where he will wait for us, once he too has crossed the final gleaming threshold?
I am still conflicted about Treacle Walker. I wanted so badly to love it and I cannot – but it has certainly been worth several readings to try to fathom why not.
It’s only little, but it’s a big book.
I would love to know what you made of it too?
I can recommend this fascinating RNIB podcast (which I have listened to after writing this blog) where Alan Garner is interviewed about Treacle Walker. Garner was a sickly child – he came close to death several times – who conjured stories from the bare white walls of his sickroom. Garner reveals the starting point of his book as the discovery of a real northern tramp named Treacle Walker who considered himself a healer (of anything but jealousy). Garner could not understand how this uneducated eccentric could have come to call himself Treacle, for treacle was once an ancient and long obsolete name for an antidote: how could he possibly have known this?