Strandloper by Alan Garner

Alan Garner’s Thursbitch was such a delight that I opened Strandloper with rare excitement.  I was not disappointed.  Garner writes with brilliant, bare precision, even if he can demand much of his readers.

As the cover tells us, the essence of the plot is the true story of William Buckley, a Cheshire bricklayer who was unjustly deported to Australia in 1801, escaped, and lived for 31 years with the Aborigines.  Garner weaves together Cheshire folklore and Aboriginal spiritualism in separate melodies that blend to create a single harmony.  This beautiful and moving tale is not always an easy read; old Cheshire dialect is as obscure as Aboriginal words and the reader sometimes has to look for meaning in the context rather than the words themselves.  In a way, it is like looking at a landscape through a stained glass window; there are layers of beauty that reward the eye that is willing to concentrate.

Garner says, in The Voice That Thunders, that a writer has to have a sense of the numinous.  That single word probably sums up Strandloper.

Numinous.

Thursbitch by Alan Garner

This is the first book that I have begun to re-read immediately, i.e. turned directly from the last page back to the first. It needed that second reading to understand its nuances.  I enjoyed it even more, and found its ending more deeply moving, on the second reading.

Thursbitch is a beautifully written story of a present-day couple and an eighteen-century community whose lives echo across the centuries near the remote valley of Thursbitch in  Cheshire.  At times it seems that the landscape itself is sentient, aware, and interacting with the people passing through it.  It is written in a clean, pure style that sometimes reads more like poetry than prose, and like poetry, you need to think about it and over-read it before the layers of complexity can be appreciated.

Garner has written some of the book in eighteenth-century Cheshire dialect, which presents some challenges to the modern reader.  The challenge is not as great, say, as reading Chaucer in the original Middle English, and there is an almost-musical cadence to the language, but you still need to think.  Most meanings are logical given their context, for example a ‘four-went-way’ is clearly a crossroads, but I had an occasional need to resort to a dictionary.

Garner makes no compromise for the modern reader, which I suspect is deliberate.  In using the old language of the fells, without a glossary, he puts the reader into that place and time rather than simply telling us about it.  However that may mean that some richness is deeply buried.  I live in a semi-rural community, so I could guess that a ‘second bite off his head’ meant a second hay crop, but I’m sure I missed other meanings.

Similarly, there is an exquisitely-written scene where couples jump through the flames of a bonfire, drive their cattle through its ashes, and take the smoldering turfs to their homes, but their actions are not explained.  It took my own, separate research for Saxon’s Bane to teach me that this was a pagan betrothal and fertility custom.

For all its challenges, I’m now a convert to Garner.  I’ve already ordered another of his books and will undoubtedly read more.  Thoroughly recommended for anyone who likes atmospheric, quality writing.