Reviewed by Jason Fisher
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:10 (#339) in October 2010.]
Alan Garner isn’t the most prolific of mythopoeic authors, so I don’t feel particularly guilty about reviewing a book published more than a decade ago. Garner has published only one novel since, Thursbitch (review forthcoming in Mythprint), so in the context of his career, Strandloper is not that old. I also do not feel particularly guilty cannibalizing a shorter review of the novel I wrote almost four years ago—though perhaps on that score, I should!
This is a remarkable, luminous, difficult book. It doesn’t do the reader any favors—exposition? bah!—but if you take the time to work at penetrating this seemingly impenetrable novel, the rewards are many. It is the most purely mythopoeic of all Garner’s novels, describing the experiences of William Buckley, a real historical figure convicted in his (and Garner’s) native Cheshire and sentenced to exile in Australia. Once there, Buckley escapes and is abandoned for dead. But he is not dead: he is discovered by an aboriginal tribe, who accept him as one of their own. I will not say more about the plot here, but suffice to say that the novel echoes Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes and other novels of the “noble savage” tradition. But it is also heavily steeped in traditional English folklore, as well as the beautiful and inscrutable mythology of the aborigines.
Having said this, I must caution that Strandloper is not for all readers. If your preferences are for straightforward fantasy, this isn’t that. If you’re looking for “another Alan Garner novel”, this isn’t even that. Some reviewers have likened the prose style of Strandloper to that of William Faulkner, and the comparison is an apt one. If you find getting through Faulkner a bit difficult, then Strandloper is going to make you want to check into an asylum—or possibly chuck the book into the fire. Garner’s deep, almost baptismal immersion, first into the folklore, then into an alien mythology is exactly that: immersive. The idiom is very difficult. Unfamiliar words and phrases are very many, and they are almost never defined. Reading the novel is not a passive act, the way reading most novels usually is; you have to take an active part in working to unravel its abstruse layers of narrative and meaning, and if that doesn’t sound like much fun to you, then put down Strandloper and try something else—perhaps O’Brian’s Master and Commander. But if this kind of engagement sounds rewarding, give it a try. Strandloper may be a tough nut to crack, but for me at least, it was very much worth the effort.