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Alan Garner’s “Treacle Walker” might just be the strangest book I’ve ever read. Even with a font size suited for a kids’ novel, it clocks in at only 152 pages. It’s a quiet, Sunday morning kind of novel that you can read cover to cover before lunchtime. But don’t be fooled: in no way does its length reflect its impact. I’ve been wondering and marveling at this little book for almost a week now. It’s not even that it packs a sucker punch; “Treacle Walker” is more of a slow burn — a simple story that is simultaneously weighty and complex. 

In terms of genre, “Treacle Walker” is a surrealist novel, whimsical and full of oddities. The plot follows Joe, an ordinary boy who comes across a strange man named Treacle Walker. They make a bizarre transaction (Joe gives the man pajamas and a lamb’s shoulder blade in exchange for a jar and a stone) that enables Joe to see and experience the most peculiar things — realities of which he had been unaware. Comic book characters leap out of their pages, and swamps that were small and confined are suddenly infinite and inescapable. Suffice it to say, a lot of weird things happen. Joe explores this strange new world, occasionally aided by the enigmatic Treacle Walker, who seems to know what’s going on but never explains anything explicitly. There’s also a sense of isolation in this novel — Joe doesn’t seem to have any friends, family or even neighbors, and almost every character he interacts with is a part of his mystical new perceptions.

As you can imagine, the novel is confusing at times and can leave the reader feeling vaguely lost. Garner’s writing is incredibly spare, each chapter only a few pages long, so you might expect “Treacle Walker” to become wearisome and boring to read — but its frugal composition has the opposite effect. The mysterious silences cause the reader to lean into the story, rapturously hanging onto every word and treasuring the dollops of pure wisdom and truth that make this novel compelling. There are certain phrases that are repeated throughout the novel: “What sees is seen,” “I heal all things; save jealousy,” “Can’t never did.” The entire time I was reading, I felt like I was missing at least half of the deeper themes — and not for lack of attentiveness. There are just so many things going on in each sentence. Garner suggests a million different ideas without ever explicitly stating them; it’s all said without being said. Herein lies the miracle of “Treacle Walker:” It’s a book you could read over and over again and still see something new every time. 

In many ways, this is the story of all people and all journeys. Joe lives his life, plodding along in one direction without deviance, only to find that there’s something more to the life that he knew. This drastic realization changes his life and requires him to make a choice: He can either grow with his new perception of the world or put the blinders back on and continue his old ways. “Treacle Walker” is a universal story. No matter your age, socioeconomic background, gender, race or political stance, we’ve all been confronted with life-altering realities. Sometimes they’re loud and conspicuous, like the death of someone close to you or a momentous personal failure. Other times, they’re quiet. It can be the kindness of a stranger, a surprising insight about someone you thought you knew well or a painful realization that you’re not the person you thought you were. But at each juncture of our lives, we have the choice to grow along with our evolving perceptions of the world. With any luck, in 10 years, I’ll look back on my current self and laugh.

For Joe, there are many points at which he’s frustrated by the change in his life — this constant barrage of nonsensical events — and he complains to Treacle Walker, saying that he never asked for any of this to happen. The old man responds, “‘I can give you back your blindness … Be a doings, if you will.’” Joe has the power to fully return to his simple, comfortable existence and forfeit the special vision he’s acquired. He wrestles with this conflict throughout the book and ultimately chooses to keep the gift because what he experiences in this novel means something. At the end of the novel, Joe considers everything that’s happened and asks, “Treacle Walker, am I dead?,” to which the old man responds, “I will not say that you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.”

To be human is to change, to take these life-altering moments in stride and grow. In this way, Garner exhorts his readers to seek what really matters; to find true meaning and life that transcends the hollow busyness of the everyday. Keeping in step with the reticent tone of the novel, Garner doesn’t tell us exactly where to look or how to find it. He only promises that a meaningful, purposeful life can be found by those who have the earnest desire to seek it. 

Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at