Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
I have been rereading this little book with great pleasure for some weeks. My admiration for Alan Garner’s writing, see here http://www.liamguilar.com/alan-garner, is undiminished, and remains just this side of idolatry.
But I’ve also been reading reactions to Treacle Walker. There’s a lot of discussion about meaning, and readers are off down the rabbit hole to learn about Bog Bodies and Knockout comics, folk beliefs about cuckoos and bone whistles, as they exist outside the story.
What does it mean? The question we learn in school. You read the book, or the poem, or the play, and someone asks you ‘what does it mean?’ and you have to provide a neat answer.
It’s a linear, logical process, and it produces a reductive answer. Once you’ve answered the question you’ve made the story redundant.
It’s one way of approaching a book, useful in a classroom where teachers have to assess language skills.
If the story can only be understood after extensive research into a wide body of (possibly infinite) external information, then isn’t that proof the story fails as communication? By all means go and learn about Rag and Bone men, or comics and their essential role in teaching generations how to read. That won’t ‘explain’ the story.
Secondly: a more important question in terms of storytelling, rather than ‘what does this mean?’: ‘What does the story do to you, the reader?’
Between the first word and the last, there’s a space for thinking through and in language in a way that is unique to stories. Treacle Walker is not a memoir or an essay. It doesn't have to deliver a simple message that can be wrapped up in a clever summary.
It doesn’t matter if you read every Knockout comic or know everything there is to know about Bog Bodies. It doesn’t matter if you’re not old enough to remember rag and bone men.
What matters is what those images and phrases and individual words are doing for you, as reader, between the beginning and end of the story as you read it. Then in its afterlife in your head after you’ve finished reading. There is no exam; no right answer, and you don’t have impose your response on anyone else, or have theirs imposed on you.
The story means itself. Let it come to you. Have the humility to trust the story teller. It may not work for you. That’s fine. That says something about you, not the story.
But If you can reduce its meaning to a couple of neat sentences, it isn’t much of a story.