Book - Treacle Walker

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner book cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on Treacle Walker by Alan Garner...

“He could not stop the tears. He fell and held on to Treacle Walker. ‘I’m only little. I’m only little.’”

This is the story of a boy and two men. It is the story about this world and another world. You might almost describe it a merger between archaeology and mythology, between physics and folklore. You might almost describe it as a quantum fantasy.

The boy is Joseph Coppock, who seems to live alone with his comics and his lazy eye. We never see any parents. We never really know where the story is set. It feels like the north of England but a real England on the border of an unreal England.

The men are Treacle Walker, a rag and bone man. But a man with more to him than just a horse and cart. There is also Thin Amren, but that way lies spoilers which is part of the problem reviewing this book – giving too much away.

Garner has a fantastic way of building an atmosphere, of making the real feel unreal and the unreal real. You can feel something is disturbing happening on occasions, but these things are anchored to the real world. I felt it when I read The Owl Service, a book I might have to read again. I need to go back and read some of the Alan Garner I read when I was a child.

The writing is magical. He writes motion and movement exceptionally well. You find yourself drawn in and as the book comes near to its end that is both horrifying and heart breaking but feels like Garner has taken it from archaeology and made it live again.

There’s an interview with Alan Garner where he talks about how Sapphire and Steel was an influence on this book. And you can really see it once you see it. I was reminded of a more esoteric Doctor Who story, probably from the DWM comic strip rather than the TV series. The way it links folk stories and quantum physics to create something unique. Without being needlessly parochial I feel it comes from a particularly British tradition of fantasy. It has a horror equivalent – folk horror. But folk fantasy doesn’t quite sound right.

This is a short novel, but it is packed with ideas, it is stonkingly well-written. For all I’ve said about Garner fitting into a British tradition he is also almost a genre of his own. Tolkien came to fantasy through his study of language and landscape and went off to create a mythology for England. Garner seems to have come to it through archaeology and drawn his stories from the actual history and mythology of England, which may be a fine line of difference. But then perhaps I’m wrong.

I read someone recently that you really shouldn’t insert yourself into reviews directly if you’re a professional reviewer. You’ll be there, of course. But between the lines. However, I am both a bear of very little brain and a dilettante so I’m just going to say that if you hadn’t already guessed I found this book a thought-provoking joy. I’m off to re-read The Owl Service.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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