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Garner, A. (1976) The Stone Book Collins ISBN 0 00 184777 5

I’m decorating our proposed workroom-cum-spare bedroom-cum-library at the moment (well in an on-&-off kind of way), and when taking a break from the back breaking chore of emulsion-ing the ceiling I found my copy of this small novella published in 1976.

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At just 60 pages I was able to re-read it in a half hour, and it proved to be a quiet revelation. Perhaps, when added to the other three novellas that form The Stone Book Quartet, it heralded Alan Garner’s defining masterpiece?

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These are jewel-like miniatures of books, almost prose poems, and in them Garner cuts away all distracting detail and finds a way to distill, and concentrate language, as he strives to render the cadence of the Cheshire tongue in modern English.

Set around Alderley Edge, the books feature one day in the life of four members of the Garner’s family and span more than a century. In a 1989 interview Garner called them “four very short novels which hang together as one work, called The Stone Book Quartet, where again I write about Alderley Edge, luminously but not magically.”

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The Stone Book packs a great deal into its spare 60 pages. It is a book of awesome power and depth, considering its brevity. It was originally pitched by Collins as children’s fiction, but I cannot imagine many children would read it willingly. This is adult fiction, superbly crafted, with pin-point observation and sophistication.

The books examine what might be called the strata of experience and memory over generations through an oblique lens. Garner is not a kind writer, this isn’t over-romanticised melodrama, his gaze is unswervingly as he peels back the layers of frailty (and strength), of poverty and ignorance, in his characters. For a seemingly simple text I’ve found myself respecting and enjoying the complex resonances of this small BIG book enormously. It’s a miniature masterwork.

“And Mary sat by the fire and read the stone book that had in it all the stories of the world and the flowers of the flood.”

The photographs are of the illustrations by Michael Foreman, found in my version of The Stone Book.

I’ve just ordered a copy of the quartet from Amazon for 1p! I can’t wait to read the other three stories…

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