Thursbitch 2003 and Boneland2012.
Because this is about Garner, I am allowed one apparently unbelievable story.
It happened like this. I read The Voice that Thunders, the collection of Garner’s essays and lectures, in the common room in Golant Youth hostel while I was working there as an assistant warden in 1984. It had been left by a passing hosteller on the book shelf. I have a visceral memory of reading the essay Inner time, which begins with the filming of The Owl Service.
I would swear to this in a court of law.
The Voice that Thunders was not published until 1997.
My initial failure to read Strandloper rankled. But then came Thursbitch. The critical part of my brain, before it shut up and left me to the experience of reading, could see the familiar aspects of the novel. Patterns, the past folding into the present, time swirling in complicated eddies around a specific place. Two stories, set in different times, the older story written in mostly untagged dialogue in a bleak dialect. Relationships are awkward: one of the modern characters is slowly dying. And there was that familiar sense of perception being bent, of the sparse carefully placed words opening up areas that had been dusty or unvisited.
Thursbitch made me want to write silly things: ‘Garner is the last surviving British Modernist’. ‘If he weren’t labelled a writer for young adults he’d be acclaimed as one of the best writers of English in the twentieth century’ and so on….fortunately I was too busy enjoying the book to embarrass myself.
What the books had been suggesting since the Owl Service was ‘then is now’…but unlike Bunting’s ‘the star you steer by is gone’, the books suggested not only is the past still present, but the stories reach all the way back to the preverbal, pre-human ancestor.
The early books had divorced the fantasy world from reality, there were portals or spells to get you through. Garner’s excavations since The Owl Service had brought to the surface the important fact that dreams are part of the heft of the world, that there is more to life than the purely rational chronological grind. A mind trained in modern rational discourse can accept the mythic and see its value. And in his most recent novel, Boneland, he put this idea front and centre.
Boneland is supposedly the final part of the Weirdstone trilogy. But apart from a character called Colin who has lost his sister, it is light years beyond the ending of The Moon of Gomrath. It’s difficult to imagine any child reading the first two books and then going straight to Boneland, though I hope some will. The distance between the books marks the journey Garner and his readers have made. In this case, the pattern has been quarried right back to that preverbal ancestor, who finally makes his appearance, and it’s hard to believe anyone else could have made such a character convincing.
As an experience, I think Boneland, like Thursbitch, is moving and disturbing. Whether it works as a sequel to the first two books is a moot point and depends on what you expect from a ‘sequel’. Whether it creates such a compelling sense of mystery and impending doom that the ending seems anticlimactic is up to the individual reader. But no reader familiar with Garner’s work could have expected the book to tie up all the narrative threads neatly, and end with the words…’and they lived happily ever after’.