Recent Reads – Lanny by Max Porter, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Some brief thoughts on a few books I read towards the end of last year, all published in 2019.

Lanny by Max Porter

A relatively rare foray into contemporary fiction for me, but one that pretty much blew me away, both structurally and narratively. In short, this beguiling, poetic novella touches on themes of community, nurturing, difference and suspicion, blending the modern with the mythic in the most inventive of ways.

The titular Lanny – a wonderfully imaginative little boy – lives with his parents in a rural village somewhere in the home counties. Lanny’s mother, Jolie, stays at home to work on her fledgling novel, an activity which allows her to maintain a close bond with her son – something her commuter husband finds harder to sustain. Meanwhile, Lanny is allowed to roam freely amongst the woods and fields, exploring the natural habitat with all its inherent mysteries. Living alongside the family in the local community is Pete, an ageing artist who spends time with Lanny after school, encouraging his creativity and flourishing imagination.

Either side of us, woods. Ahead of us, hills. Counties lapping falsely at each other over the stone plates which rough-and tumbled to form this gentle landscape. Some very old trees round this way. Saints.

We tramp down the steep-walled chalk and moss run, tree roots like sea monsters lining our route, and we discuss the passing of time.

I tell Lanny about the ghost of Ben Hart who runs up and down this track trying to find his beloved. Headless Ben Hart calling out for his girl. I’m only teasing, trying to shit him up a bit, but he replies in all sincerity, Brilliant, I hope we meet him. (p. 31, Faber & Faber)

As this is a novella, I don’t want to reveal too much about the storyline – partly as it might spoil the magic for prospective readers. What I will say is that the book is brilliantly constructed, building very skilfully to an unexpected and moving conclusion; the final third, in particular, has a momentum all of its own. I’m not usually a fan of fables or stories containing elements of fantasy, but Lanny represents an exception to the rule. This is a thoroughly engaging novella, moving seamlessly between different styles, using language and imagery to great effect. Very highly recommended indeed.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall

An excellent collection of short stories from one of our most highly-regarded practitioners of the form. Here are tales of family ties, sex, vengeance, mortality, grief and loss, all conveyed in Hall’s characteristically lyrical prose.

Like Max Porter in Lanny, Hall occasionally blends the real with the imaginary in these pieces, transitioning from one mode to another to heighten the desired effect. This is particularly true of the opening story, M, in which a woman enacts her revenge on a series of abusive men.

Alongside the poetic beauty of Hall’s prose, there is a precision too – one that suggests an experienced writer who has honed her craft over several years.

Winter. It is colder than it’s been for years. Inside the walls of buildings water swells, turns rigid, splitting pipes, displacing bricks. Ceilings collapse with the weight of ice. The trees are black and stiff as railings. Long, productive darkness, but at dawn, and in twilight hours, there are great studios of teal above the city. She continues to administer, to those she didn’t reach, couldn’t reach, before. (p. 19, Faber & Faber) 

Fantasy also play a role in Orton, albeit in less fantastical form – the protagonist has been fitted with a pacemaker that can be deactivated by choice whenever she wishes to die. In this story, the central character chooses to revisit her past while contemplating her own impending mortality.

Other pieces are firmly grounded in reality, stories such as The Women the Book Read, in which a man living in a Turkish resort believes he recognises a woman from his past – presumably someone visiting the destination for a holiday. It is only once the man begins to follow this woman that their history becomes clear.

In a few of these pieces, Hall does that wonderful thing of upending our impressions of a character or situation partway through, causing us to question and reframe our initial assumptions. I love that about her work. It’s one of the things I most admire in a short story, where the narrative has to make a significant impact in a relatively brief window of time.

In short, this is a terrific collection of stories – sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsettling, always memorable. There is an elegance or delicacy to certain pieces, a quality that acts as a contrast with some of the visceral imagery. All in all, a very accomplished set of stories, vividly told.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

A luminous meditation on the interminable condition of insomnia, that shadowy hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness.

Anyone who has ever experienced the long-drawn-out restlessness of a night without sleep will almost certainly find themselves nodding along to various elements with this jewel-like book. Benjamin – a writer, journalist and editor by trade – writes beautifully about her intimate relationship with insomnia, punctuating her own experiences with fragments spanning the cultural, philosophical and artistic history of the condition in a way that feels both candid and immersive all at once. Her descriptions of insomnia are lyrical and lucid, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between disparate thoughts as the mind rapidly darts from one topic to another, like a pinball machine firing up in the subconscious.

Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me – then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought. (pp. 85–86, Scribe)

The fragmentary structure of the book works very well, mirroring the disparate, almost dreamlike nature of the condition itself. At times, there are passages of heightened self-reflection, instances when Benjamin comes to question the impact of insomnia on her own existence – or, more specifically, her sense of self.

What time-bending tricks has life played on me? I have honoured every emotional contract I was signatory to and yet I seem to have lost myself. At moments such as these, everything that is closest to my heart, that generates the impression of gravity in my world, gets rudely pitched across the universe. (p. 94)

This is a beautiful, wise, insightful book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. At its core, there is a deep-rooted yearning, a sense of longing for elusive restorative sleep, all captured in the author’s luminous poetic style. A book to keep on the night table for the bewitching hours between darkness and light, to dip into as balm for the soul.

(My thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing reading copies of Lanny and Sudden Traveller.)

41 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Lanny by Max Porter, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

  1. A Life in Books

    It’s the fantasy element of Lanny that’s put me off but I think you’ve persuaded me to overlook that, Jacqui. The Hall’s already on my list and so is Insomnia, a misery that’s eased for me over the last few years.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had been a bit worried about the fantasy element in Lanny beforehand (fables and fantasy are not my usual thing), but luckily my fears weren’t realised. It actually works very well – quite naturally, in fact!

      Reply
  2. naomifrisby

    I really loved Lanny and, of course, Sudden Traveller. I keep reading about Benjamin’s Insomnia but, as someone who used to suffer from chronic insomnia, I should probably read the book itself! Your summary sounds as though it’s my sort of thing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lanny’s great, isn’t it? I’m wondering if it might be my first ‘book of the year’ for 2020? A bit of a cheat given the fact that I actually read it last year, but what the hell. It definitely feel like end-of-year highlights material!

      I think you’d love Sarah Hall’s short stories. There’s a visceral quality to them that’s hard to capture in words.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    These all sound worthwhile. Lanny sounds particularly interesting. I spent my young years wondering around fields and woodland so stories that focus on young people doing this tend to appeal to me.

    Reply
  4. heavenali

    Skimming your reviews a bit as I have a copy of Lanny waiting to read. I have seen in praised highly by so many people. The Sarah Hall short stories sound excellent too. With Insomnia it seems like the writing style mirrors the subject matter, which is clever. I suffered from a bad bout of insomnia about 8 years ago and will never forget the misery of it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Insomnia is soul destroying, isn’t it? I suffer from intermittent bouts of it, largely when there’s too much going on in my head for me to switch off properly at the end of the day. Consequently, a night of relatively undisturbed sleep comes as a huge relief! Yes, there is a certain degree of mirroring between the vignette style of the book and the looping nature of the condition itself. I’m not normally a big fan of fragmentary books (particularly novels), but in this case it works really well. It’s the sort of book you can dip in and out of every now and again, just as a reminder that you’re not alone.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lanny isn’t my usual type of read either (particularly in terms of the mythic elements), but I found it unexpectedly rich and moving. A beautifully structured book that deserves to be widely read.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I started Porter’s first book and did not like it. But thus I might like. Not sure I can read a book about Insomnia. I’ve had a few good months but last year I suffered for weeks. Ages ago went through almost a whole year. Shudder. But sounds very good. Isn’t Sarah Hall a marvel?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She certainly is! Hall’s style seems to suit the short form very well, possibly helped by the precise nature of the prose. Oddly enough, I never got around to getting hold of her previous collection of short stories, Madame Zero, so that’s definitely something to remedy in the future.

      That’s very interesting about Grief is a Thing with Feathers. I haven’t read it (or tried to read it in the past), but the fact that I loved Lanny so much leaves me keen to try it in the future. We’ll see…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Sudden Traveller is well worth seeking out. Definitely one of the most vividly realised collections of stories I’ve read in recent years.

      Reply
  6. Liz Dexter

    Three interesting books! I love the variety I see across the blogs I read – and I’m so glad I widened my blog reading in 2019, even if I’m frantically trying to catch up while my husband is at the cinema!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. Hopefully you’ll find some great books across the blogosphere over the course of the year. There’s always something new and interesting to discover!

      Reply
  7. Radz Pandit

    I agree with everything you have written about Sudden Traveller. Sarah Hall is simply brilliant at short stories. Lanny has received a lot of glowing reviews on Twitter, so that’s one to look forward too. Insomnia sounds really compelling, I will have to add it to my wishlist. I have a house move coming up, which means that I won’t be buying books for a while!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good luck with the house move, always a stressful time! I hope you get a chance to read Lanny as some point, maybe once you get settled again. I’d really like to hear what you make of it.

      Reply
  8. lonesomereadereric

    Great to read your brief thoughts on these. Lanny is so creatively done and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to see Porter embody Dead Papa Toothwort at a reading/performance of the novel at the Southbank Centre last year. It made the novel and all the distinct voices of the characters come alive.
    And I loved the book Insomnia too – such a comforting reflection on the condition.
    I’ve read some of Hall’s stories and novels before so I’ll look out for this recent collection. I like it when fiction makes us question our initial assumptions. That makes me wonder: have you ever read Andrew Sean Greer’s novel “The Story of a Marriage”? He does this brilliantly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that reading by Max Porter sounds amazing! I wish I could have been there. You know, I’ve been wondering whether Lanny might be adapted for the stage at some point, particularly given what happened with Grief is a Thing with Feathers. The Dead Papa Toothworth thread definitely has the potential to work well in the theatre as it feels so imbued with visual imagery.

      As for the Hall, I think you’d like it very much. She is such a creative and accomplished writer; no wonder her work has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize so many times. I loved the way these stories made me reassess my understanding of a character or situation partway through. She’s a thought-provoking writer, and yet her stories manage to challenge your thinking in quite subtle ways. A very impressive skill for a writer to possess.

      Oh, and thanks for the tip about The Story of a Marriage. I haven’t read it but will look it up forthwith. Cheers, Eric. Happy New Year to you!

      Reply
  9. Scott W.

    Looks like you hit a trifecta with this trio of books, none of which are at all familiar to me. I’m a little afraid Insomnia will only add to my own, though I’m curious to know whether Benjamin includes any nifty auto-soporific tricks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She doesn’t, I’m afraid. The book is probably more concerned with her personal experiences than offering any recommendations for potential remedies. That said, it’s beautifully written, rather poetic in its own individual way. :)

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    I almost bought Lanny in the post-Christmas sales, but felt I had bought too many already. I will get round to it, though, as I loved Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Similarly, I like Sarah Hall’s work and will no doubt get to this too, held up by the fact I have two of her books unread at present.
    However, as someone who generally has no trouble sleeping I’m slightly afraid to read about insomnia in case I start thinking about it too much and can’t sleep!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, that’s always a danger with something like this. The very act of reading about the condition might heighten your awareness of it – or at least what it feels like to be strung out without sleep.

      As for Lanny, I think you’ll like it. Maybe it would suit your book group, specially as you seem to favour short books? It’s certainly a very striking piece of work!

      Reply
  11. Max Cairnduff

    I’m fine with fantasy elements, but I haven’t read Grief yet so Lanny has to wait (partly as I want to read Heaney’s Crow first which I understand Grief references).

    No idea if I’m Hall’s reader or not, I’ve not tried her. I might see if she has any short stories available online – Granta for example sometimes put short stories they’ve published on their site.

    Insomnia, I do sometimes get it which in a way puts me off reading the book. I don’t get it often though, I doubt nearly as much as Benjamin does (she has my sympathies).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Grief is a Thief with Feathers is definitely on my list now, especially as I enjoyed Lanny so much. At first, I wasn’t sure whether I would get on with the mythic element, but any qualms I had soon disappeared. The fantasy thread works very well withing the context of the overall story, particularly towards the end when everything comes together in a stunning climax. It’s a very impressive piece of writing, genuinely heartfelt and striking. I hope you get a chance to read it at some point…but, in the meantime, I shall look forward to your thoughts on Porter’s first book, along with the Heaney of course.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d definitely like to read Grief at some point, maybe later this year. It seems to have struck a chord with so many readers. Plus there’s the stage adaptation too, something that leads me to wonder whether Lanny might also have another life beyond the book.

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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