Saturday 7 April 2018

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

A classic work of rural magic realism from one of Britain’s greatest children’s novelists.
Through four interconnected fables of a way of living in rural England that has now disappeared, Alan Garner vividly brings to life a landscape situated on the outskirts of industrial Manchester.
Smiths and chandlers, steeplejacks and quarrymen, labourers and artisans: they all live and work hand in hand with the seasons, the elements and the land. There is a mutual respect and a knowledge of the magical here that has somehow, somewhere been lost to us. These fables beautifully recapture and restore that lost world in simple, searching prose.

When I was a teenager I remember arguing that Alan Garner was a better writer than Tolkien. Now over forty years later I still think that there is a case to be made. At first it might seem ridiculous when one looks at the slim volume of this book (made up four short stories), but then the economy of Garner's writing is one of its strengths. He never overwrites, is never self indulgent, and yet he always writes enough to create complex layers. There is so much in this book that it is impossible for me to do it justice in this short blog post. If you are a reader who likes the writer to make life simple for you, who doesn't like having to think about what you are reading, then you probably will not appreciate Alan Garner's books. I found myself thinking about The Stone Book Quartet for weeks after reading it, which is partly why it has taken me so long to write this review.

The Stone Book Quartet is set around a specific area of Britain, a part of the county of Cheshire called Alderley Edge. It has been home for Alan Garner's family for time immemorial  and it is where he still lives.  The Stone Book Quartet is to some extent based on four generations of his family. Each quartet focuses on one young person from each generation - all are finding themselves and their place in a world that is changing. The first book in many ways is a benediction to a way of life that had not changed for centuries, but the good stone which generations of men in the family had hewn and worked is now running out. Masons of course have long been associated with secret rituals and in this quartet the central character, Mary, is initiated into a family secret, a rite of passage, in which she sees the hand of generations past. 

One reason I love Garner's writing so much is the way history pervades his work. His is an understanding of history, I might say a intuitive feeling for history, that chimes with mine. It is ever present and acts as a recurring theme, not in a doomed way (as is the case in Garner's novels The Owl Service and Red Shift) but in a no less profound way. 

The Stone Book Quartet is in part a celebration of handicraft. In the second book Mary's son turns his back on working stone and becomes a blacksmith. But there is still the sense of work well done, of hands mastering the world (and the elements) around them. It is a world that is constantly changing and yet is continuous. In the final book William, Mary's great-grandchild, is made a sledge by his blacksmith father. The sledge is formed from the handles of the forge bellows (the smith is retiring), from forged iron, and from some old wood which came from a hand loom used by Mary's uncle in a craft that was dying out even when Mary was a girl. The book ends with William sledging:

He set off. It had not been imagined. He was not alone on the sledge. There was a line and he could feel it. It was a line through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill. He owned them all: and they owned him.

Of course the story of the family's craftsmanship does not end with William, Alan Garner is part of that story and, as I said in my first paragraph, you will not find a better master of the writer's craft. The stone book in the title is a book crafted for Mary with great love by her father from a stone. Mary's stone book was a prayer book and so might have been considered blasphemous, but it wasn't. For me Garner's Stone Book Quartet is a very spiritual and mystical book and I am reminded of the Victorian church in Vauxhall, London, where I used to work. Although it was a church full of beautiful craftsmanship, it was a church for the poor working class people of the neighbourhood. Everywhere, in the stone and wood carvings, the mosaics, the embroidered vestments and banners, the church celebrated the sacrament of working with your hands. "Remember," it said, "Jesus was a carpenter, a working man like you."