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Book Review: Strandloper by Alan Garner

Strandloper. Baffling, baffling, baffling. Lexicon as narrative. A magical incantation. A singular reading experience. A book that requires, at least on the first reading, that you resign yourself to the experience of reading, remain alert and work hard to unravel archane references. Alert and accepting, letting oneself go with the flow, an act of faith, of trust in Garners qualities as storyteller, shaman & guide.

Strandloper is loosely based on the true story of the 18th C. Cheshire labourer William Buckley who was transported to Australia and then return some thirty years later. But that simple outline of a story is only the start. In a typically Garneresque way it’s used as a stepping-off point to an exploration of pre-Christian folk rituals, epilepsy, dreams and visions, working class literacy, squirearchy (property, order & hierarchy ), the horror of the transport ships and the pain of enduring love.

The reading is – predictably – neither straightforward nor simple. Garner’s writing throughout is unforgivingly economic. There is no fat. It’s wasted fare. Sparce to the point of abstraction and close to the destruction of narrative sense. Poetic. Demanding. It’s like looking at a landscape through a stained glass window; there are layers of beauty that reward the eye and the mind of the reader but there’s also a quagmire of ambiguity and complexity that require intense engagement to make sense of the kaleidoscopic imagery, the words, the dialects, the music and the experience of landscape. In many ways this is a phenomenal book:

phenomena
fəˈnɒmɪnə

relating to or being a phenomenon
a :  known through the senses rather than through thought or intuition
b :  concerned with phenomena rather than with hypotheses
c :  extraordinary, remarkable

Garner skillfully works with the grand themes of time and eternity, the nature of religious worship and true wisdom, the value of education, linear and cylical time, the role of nature and the purpose of existence. He is a weaver and poet. Stradloper is enigmatic, unforgettable, strange and recommended.

“In form, Strandloper is constructed like a Buntingesque prose poem of continuity and rupture, environment and myth. The dialogue is stunningly harsh and bare, forcing the reader to work and think and learn.”

Jenny Turner, review in The Guardian Friday 24 May 1996

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