Treacle Walker (2022), by Alan Garner, is a little book, a strange book, a layered book, a mystifying book, a linguistic romp of a book, a stimulating book, a delightful book. It may also be, to employ two of the many Google-necessitating words from its pages, a hurlothrumbo or lomperhomack, a macaroni or taradiddle of a book, though I’ll leave it to your own investigations as to whether any of those fit (if those few examples of Garner’s dialect didn’t scare you off, which they absolutely should not).
It’s also a book that is very difficult to discuss substantively without moving into spoiler territory. So before I head in that direction, I’ll just say this for those wishing to avoid any spoilers. The novel centers on Joseph Coppock, a young boy just over an illness and who is wearing an eye patch to heal a lazy eye. When a rag and bone man shows up, and Joseph gives him an old pair of pajamas and a lamb’s shoulder blade bone he’d collected in exchange for an old jar with some ointment and donkey-stone, Joseph ends up in a series of surreal encounters with a bog man, a cuckoo, a doppelgänger, comic book characters escaping from their pages, and more. Very little is straightforward, even less is explained, the language, as noted above, can be obscuring rather than illuminating, and it closes on an ambiguous note. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m obviously therefore recommending it, but if any of the prior information gives you pause, given its relatively few pages (and some of those blank or with just a chapter number), I’d say give it a shot for a while and see if you sink or swim.
Stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.
OK, going in,
So at the end of the book (stop wincing; I warned you), Joseph asks, “Treacle Walker, am I dead?”, and that’s as clear a signpost (though still muddy) one gets in one possible reading of this strange little book , though only one.
That one perhaps reading is thst Joseph has died at or shortly before the novel’s start. This reading doesn’t simply rely on that direct question at the end; there are several clues along the way, We’re told Joseph has been ill, that he can’t be in the sun for long, he multiple times moves between spaces — land and water, though a mirror, he marks time by a train that goes by every day at noon but never seems to return, he looks upon a doppelgänger of himself, his parents (or any adults beyond the two mythic figures) are nowhere to be seen, he has a second sight that allows him to see beyond the “normal”! And more, Perhaps the most direct hint, depending on one’s reading background,, is when the big man, Thin Amgen, calls Treacle Walker a psychopomp, which is a spirit that guides souls to the place of the dead. These are all layered one atop the other in skillful fashion, an accretion of detail and action that eventually make us wonder if the story we thought we were reading isn’t the the actual story at all. I loved the way all these bits and pieces added up to a larger picture, and loved as well Joseph’s varying bits of utter confusion, frustration, and even anger, all of which seems more than fitting if the above reading is a correct one.
Then again. As noted, it’s only a possible reading, and one that is complicated by other elements of the story. For instance, how do we fit in Thin Amran, who (maybe? Perhaps?) sleeps and dreams the world until he is awakened (maybe? Perhaps?) by Joseph and then has to be put back under the fen water by him? Honestly, I’m not at all sure what to make of him, save that I loved his old magic, mythic quality and would mourn his absence in this story.
Then there’s the ointment in that old jar, which gives Joseph second sight in one of his eyes, allowing him to pierce the veil of the mundane. Would he need an ointment if he’s spirit or half spirit himself? I’m not sure I can square that circle, but once more, I loved it for what it allows — a seemingly normal visit to an optometrist where Joseph reads the eye chart in the form of nonsense and even non-existent letters but which turn out to be, when Joseph shows Treacle Walker the letters he’d written down on paper, a Latin phrase that translates as “This stone is small of little price; spurned by fools, more honored by the wise.” Which could refer to Joseph’s Donkey stone, but also this book itself, which is indeed both small and worthy. It also allows for the wonderful metaphor of a “lazy eye” an affliction one might say too many of us suffer from in the way we do not see the fantastical that lies before us every day, every moment, in the pulsing of our blood through the wondrous machine that is our body, in the flight of an insect or bird, the slow creep of a snail, the trail of a raindrop down a windowpane, and the list goes on literally to infinity, At one point, Joseph asks if Treacle Walker can remove the glamour from his eye, and Walker tells him he can restore him to his “blindness.” Joseph, though, decides to keep his gift of sight, to accept the change in himself and open himself to the wondrous peril or perilous wonder of the world entire,
In fact, he does more than keep his second sight. For when he asks Treacle Walker what he himself desires, Walker notes he’s never been asked that before, then answers “To hear no more the beat of Time. To have no morrow and no yesterday. To be free of years … Oblivion. Home.” And then Joseph tells him to “Buck up … and bugger off to summer stars,” before leaping onto the rag and bone man’s cart and finding the magical words that came “from within and without and the dark and the light and the knowing” to get the pony moving, taking Walker’s place and starting the first of what one assumes will be his many rounds.
A happy ending? A sad ending? Both and neither perhaps, one from the dark and the light. But also not an ending at all, as Walker tells him earlier, but simply a change to “another place.” For me, it was a perfect ending, or transition, to a book that maybe isn’t perfect, but which utterly captivated and enthralled me in character and world, in act and word.