The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

cover to The Stone Book Quartet by Alan GarnerAfter Red Shift, Alan Garner published four novellas between 1976 and 1978, which were grouped together as The Stone Book Quartet. The combined work has a lot in common with Red Shift — for instance, each story takes place in the same geographical location but at widely separated times (1864, 1886, 1914 and 1941) — but in tone and effect, the two are as different as the stinging nettle and the dock leaf that grows beside it. Even the little things tell. Red Shift‘s stone axehead (a symbol of violence, however much it’s used to try and bind Tom and Jan together) finds a sort of equivalent, here, in a delicate clay smoking pipe, buried in 1864 and rediscovered miraculously whole in 1941, or perhaps by the twin horseshoes placed (as the axehead was by Thomas and Margery) in a fireplace, to represent a marriage, and here properly treated (again, as Red Shift‘s Tom can’t) as the most valuable thing in the house:

Your Grandma and me, we’d have let every stick of furniture go first, and the house, before we’d have parted from them.

In Red Shift, a church is a place of refuge because, in Tom and Jan’s modern world, it is most likely to be found empty, except for a doddery old rector; in The Stone Book Quartet, a church and a chapel are built things, pieces of craftsmanship and connections with the craftsmanship of previous generations. The graffiti which ends Red Shift, and is a sort of summation of all its bleakness and distance becomes, here, a craftsman’s mark, an illiterate man’s rune carved on the inside of a stone block at the top of a steeple, not a silent cry of despair but the quiet symbol of one man’s lasting achievement.

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner, another coverThe four stories of The Stone Book Quartet are based on Garner’s own family history. Each takes place during a single day, following a child or teen character as she (in the first) or he (in the others) experiences, as Garner puts it, “the defining moment that most commonly occurs in childhood.” In the first story, “The Stone Book”, young Mary, wishing she could have a prayer book to take to chapel on Sundays like her two girlfriends, is instead shown a cave deep in a local mine, where the wall is decorated with an ancient painting. In “Granny Reardun”, whose title refers to its protagonist having been raised not by his mother (Mary from the previous story) but his Granny, young Joseph decides to step out from the shadow of previous generations and find his own course in life. But Garner’s “defining moment” doesn’t have to be a revelation or a decision. There’s a poetic feel at the end of the fourth story, “Tom Fobble’s Day”, as young William sits atop a snowy hill on a sledge his grandfather made, watching the searchlights and anti-aircraft gunfire lighting up the night sky, and sensing his deep, almost wordless connection with the life and land around him.

And this is the greatest contrast with Red Shift. Where that novel was about often fruitless struggle and turmoil, The Stone Book Quartet is about the naturalness of finding your place in life, your connection to the generations that came before. It’s about being part of something, not being alienated from everything.

It’s impossible not to see this in terms of Garner’s own story. He writes, in the essay “Aback of Beyond” (collected in The Voice That Thunders) of how difficult he found it to connect himself, “not the first of my family to be intelligent, but… the first to be taught”, with a family that had:

“…shaped the place in which I had grown; everywhere I turned, their hands showed me their skills; yet my hands had no cunning; with them I could make nothing, and my family despaired of me.”

Garner family photo

A photo of Alan Garner’s family that helped initiate the writing of The Stone Book Quartet

If that need could only be answered by finding his own true craft and proving himself at it, The Stone Book Quartet can be seen as his masterpiece. In a work that reads so much like a paean to craftsmanship itself, full as it is of capable men taking quiet pride in a job well done (“He worked without waste, and easily”), Garner produces something that is itself a work of beautiful, authentic craftsmanship in its very use of words. He writes in the dialect of the region he grew up in, but in a way that is as easy to read and understandable as the clearest, simplest English — in fact, in a way that is so much more alive and direct. (And with no apostrophe-laden attempts to mimic an accent. Garner does it all with the choice and ordering of words.) And he uses it to perfectly capture those fleeting, impossible-to-define moments in his child protagonists’ lives in which they find themselves, their own unique identity, as well as their belongingness to the world around them, the landscape, the continuing story of their families. Quiet, simple, profound, a wonderful work of word-craftsmanship, The Stone Book Quartet is life-affirming in a most unlooked-for way after the turmoil of Red Shift.

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