Book Review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle
The Changeling is a dark, adult, fairytale exploring, in depth, the legend of the changeling, a part of fairy folklore. What lengths would you go to, to keep your infant child safe? How far will you go for revenge if your child didn't remain safe? What if it was your fault all along?
I love fairy tales. I also love history and learning about different beliefs and cultures throughout the world. Legends, myths, folklore, fairy tales, all have such interesting roots and hearts of truths that have been twisted and muddled throughout history. One interesting piece of myth or folklore is that of 'The Changeling.'
If you are unfamiliar with the legend, and there are many different versions, the basic premise is this, a human child is switched with something, this could be a fairy child/token/evil talisman etc. The human parents are believed to not notice the difference as the token/fairy child/talisman etc has 'glamour' or a spell or curse on them to appear the same as the human baby they were switched for. Some myths go as far as to believe that a mother can tell that her child is different and is drawn mad, some believe that the mother's anguish and tears feed the goblin/fairy child left behind and that is where they gain their nourishment, rather than human milk. Others tell of fairy children needing human milk to become half human.
I read Hannah Kent's The Good People back in 2016 and it was one of my favourite books that year.
The Good People focuses on a real-life case in Ireland, where a woman was put on trial for trying to drive the fairy out of a disabled four-year-old boy. The story is told in such a way that you don't know what to believe, with 'the Good People' traditions mixing with the highly religious people who lived there. I saw Hannah Kent in person, discussing her research on the topic and how many children who were disabled were treated in horrible ways, most often murdered, due to the superstitions of the day. Thank goodness for the advancement of medicine to this day. While we still have a way to go in how people are treated who do have differing abilities, at least we are no longer resulting (in most cases at least) to barbaric ways of torture to 'treat' them.
The idea of the changeling also makes sense when you think about postpartum depression. Some mothers tell about not being able to connect with their child and thinking something is wrong with them. This is such a common occurrence and we know to keep an eye on new mothers and have their backs, with regular checkups and access to nurses, therapists, medication, etc.
However, is it hard to imagine that back in the past, you would not have been able to seek medical advice or see a psychologist to help you with your depression, you would not even have a word to know what was happening. You would consider yourself unnatural or project that onto your child, being more susceptble to believing that they had been switched with a fairy child/goblin.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle explores the changeling myth by setting a black couple in modern day New York, excited and terrified as new parents are, by the birth of their perfect infant child. However the main character, Apollo, notices his wife Emma, behaving strange and stranger as the days go past, with Emma not believing their child is her own. Apollo puts this down to post partum depression and the general new baby exhaustion, but then Emma does something horrifying, something that Apollo will never forgive. He goes into a blind rage and a quest for revenge, that leads him through the fairy tale world where things may not have been what they seemed at the time.
The Changeling examines the father-son relationship, with Apollo still coming to terms with his own relationship with his father and how that consciously and possibly subconsciously affects his relationship with newborn son. Apollo suffers from nightmares from his childhood where his father plays a key role and there is an incident of the box that appeared, a box that contained mementoes from his parent's relationship that only his mother and father would have access to.
Throughout the book and in a variety of different ways, the obligations we have to our children is examined and is also compared to a couple who chose not to have children for a nice contrast. Those obligations and depths we would go to are then blown wide apart, incorporated into a modern fairy tale with roots as old as time.
The modern age technology and how we are ruled by our phones also is used brilliantly, woven into the main story line effortlessly. When you find out the twists and turns, you will want to throw your phone away and never post photos online again.
Overall, this book ticked all my boxes. It explores an ancient myth in a new way, it was clever, the characters had depth and psychological issues were addressed. Technology wasn't ignored, in fact, it was a central part of the book, but it contrasted nicely with Apollo's career as a rare book collector and seller, showing a love between the old and the new. Racism was present and an accepted part of the characters' lives, which is eyeopening that this level of racism still occurs to this day and it was interwoven with the main characters quest to find his family, with Apollo needing to keep an eye out for the police and of him being aware of what it looks like, a black man roaming the streets in an affluent neighbourhood with 'concerned' neighbours.' At the same time, he is dealing with a legend that doesn't discriminate based on skin colour, but on whether you have been able to produce a healthy baby.
2018 Reading Challenges:
Have you read The Changeling? Or do you have any other recommendations for stories involving fairy folklore or even an adult fairytale? I would love to know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.