Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet (Collins Educational, 1983)

Some time ago, I reviewed John Berger's Into Their Labours, a trilogy that I said was where 'noted art critic John Berger lovingly documented the lives of the peasants of the small peasant French Alps village into which he moved some thirty years ago. This trilogy is neither fiction or non-fiction, but rather is a brilliant merging of both.' That trilogy was a thick, sprawling look at peasants that resembled Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home in the obsessive attention to detail. Everything was detailed, and I really mean everything, in both of those works. And then there's The Stone Book Quartet, weighin' in at a mere one hundred and twenty six very small pages for all four tales therein.

Though Alan Garner can be compared to fellow Englishman Robert Holdstock in his creative, sometimes maddening, use of language, Garner has never, to me knowledge, been anything but terse, or if you prefer, elegantly tight, in his use of words. I think that his most sprawling novel, Strandloper, is a mere two hundred pages long, whereas Holdstock has series running into the thousands of pages. His new Celtika series has three fat volumes so far. So at least part of what is interesting about The Stone Book Quartet is its poetical nature, using as few words as possible to tell the tale Garner wants to tell.

Now, understand that I usually love a tale that sprawls over a number of volumes, i.e., the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde has had three wonderful volumes so far, and the Dave Robicheaux series easily has a dozen volumes that I've read. Each series is one in which I eagerly look forward to the next novel. This little book is, however, a joy — a slender offering from an author that can be read in an evening. Coraline by Neil Gaiman was one such work, as was James Goldman's play, The Lion in Winter. Same for T.S. Elliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral.

The Stone Book Quartet is series of four interconnected stories, telling Alan Garner's personal and family history as fiction. It's set in Manchester, England, where Garner's family is from. It is important to note that, unlike John Berger's Into Their Labours, in which Berger, an Englishman, moved to the remote French village where that series is based, Garner's tale reflects his deep roots in the culture, a theme that has become stronger in his fiction over the past decade. Simply put, each tale is, like the peasants in Into Their Labours, a marvelous play of language, of the labouring class in their daily lives, the cycle of the seasons, and the continuity that comes of living for generations in a community.

I'll not tell you much 'bout The Stone Book Quartet, as that would spoil the sheer joy of reading it. I will say that it traces the history of a character named Mary and her family over five generations, from the end of the nineteenth century to just before the start of the Second World War, with each generation adding something to the story being told. Mary's father is a stonemason and he wants to pass his secrets on to his daughter. But Mary is dreaming of a book, a book to read and treasure. Her father decides to make a stone book, an odd thing which may be just what she wanted. Then Mary's son Joseph turns away from stone and learns to work with iron. William, the young lad in the final tale, inherits something from all of his ancestors, but is yet undecided as what kind of life he'll choose.

I read it in a few hours — lovely tale that I'll revisit soon. It certainly was more than merely good, so that I'll be seeking out other works by this author to read. Alas, The Stone Book Quartet is currently out of print, but copies can found on ABE.

[Jack Merry]