Alan Garner's remarkable fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath have always held a haunting air of mystery. Like Tolkien's, they featured dwarves, elves, a wizard and magical jewellery, yet its heroes Colin and Susan, deposited in 1960s Cheshire to live with Farmer Mossock and his wife, were of our world and time. Deeply rooted in a particular English landscape and written with a shamanistic feel for myth and language, they remain classics of children's literature.
Boneland, published more than 50 years later, is Garner's conclusion to the story, and is not for children. Colin, unable to remember anything before the age of 13, is now a distinguished middle-aged astrophysicist, and very odd indeed. He spends his time using the Jodrell Bank observatory to search for his lost sister among the Pleiades, and lives the most basic life in a hut when not wandering the woods in academic robes echoing those of the wizard Cadellin. He is terrified of crows, and warns a little boy about witches. Is he mad, or traumatised?
Imagining what might happen to the protagonists of children's books after their supernatural adventures are over is always intriguing. Some authors, such as C S Lewis, transport them to live in Narnia forever; the price being death in this world. Philip Pullman has Will and Lyra part in order to save their respective universes. J K Rowling provided a nice circular solution, showing us Harry Potter sending his own son to Hogwarts.
Garner's solution is braver. His magical world drew some of its power and terror from the experience of mania, which the author (himself bipolar) described hypnotically. Appointing Colin a sympathetic shrink, who may be a psychiatrist or may be the witch Morrigan, is a bold move. From the attempt at a talking cure, we eventually deduce something of what has happened to Susan, the twin Colin now hears whispering to him across the universe.
However, these are the novel's weakest aspects, for the bleak, spare descriptions of Colin's life are intercut with the kind of awkward dialogue last seen in 1970s John Fowles books. Interleaved with all this are passages similar to those in Garner's Thursbitch, about a prehistoric Watcher who maintains the balance of the universe by dancing and storytelling.
Colin says his mistake was to mix myth and science when "they occupy different dimensions", and the same goes for this novel. Those likely to buy it are Garner's existing fans. Why Susan vanished from this world is what we want, and don't get. Dismally, it's hinted that it may be connected to the onset of menstruation (or, as it's called here, "menarche".)
There are thousands of pretentious, second-rate adult novelists, and only a handful of first-rate children's writers. Why Garner had to write this story as the first, not the second is, alas, the real mystery.
Amanda Craig's novels include 'In a Dark Wood' (Abacus)Reuse content