I finished reading this novel over the weekend, and it is just a killer.
Victor LaValle is one of my favorite discoveries of the last year. Everything I’ve read from him thus far has been brilliant. This book in particular has some dizzying reversals of plot and tone, which definitely keeps you reeling as a reader. I would recommend it for its masterful handling of plot alone, but it’s also a wonderful example of a novel that navigates the horrifying mythic landscape of northern Europe extremely well, particularly the British Isles and Scandinavia. The witches, fairies, goblins and trolls of ancient fairy tales find new life here, and it is wonderful to see.
A warning for the curious: this book is a true fairy tale, of the Elder Kind. It is a tale for adults about childhood and parenthood–not a tale for children. It is never wise to mistake the one sort of fairy tale for the other, although the two are cousins.
This novel is dark, bloody, and violent. It features genuine chaotic magic, the kind that is rare to see and exacts a terrible price from human beings. There are monsters both mundane and supernatural. It is a classic story about the fae: the hapless hero must pierce illusions, learn to tell friend from foe, separate love from selfishness and vanity, have faith and humble himself in the presence of mysteries he does not understand, in a world that seethes with hostility and lies.
It is also one of the most beautiful stories about fatherhood that I have read in recent memory. The text explicitly evokes other beautiful stories about fatherhood as well, both in ancient and modern literature. One of the MacGuffins of the plot is a signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, as an example.
The primary magical text of the novel is a children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There. Several characters throughout The Changeling are haunted by the opening lines of that story. It begins “When Papa was away at sea…” and concerns a girl named Ida, who loses her little sister to the goblins. The kidnappers replace the human child with a Changeling, a golem carved from ice…but the magic around the creature is powerful enough that even the child’s sister cannot initially pierce the illusion, and gathers the cold thing in her arms to say, “I love you so.”
The real world issues that this story touches upon are many. Postpartum depression and infanticide. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy, and how they twist the script of love for a woman or a child. The invalidation of women and their experiences and beliefs, as well as the threats to their safety. Fatherhood in all its forms, specifically the shattered bonds between flawed fathers and their sons. The survival necessity of friendship between men, particularly black men. The dangers of social media, particularly the oversharing habits of the “New Parent” in millennial culture. The permeability and vulnerability of our homes and families in the digital age.
It’s a rich, rewarding book, and I cannot say another word without spoiling it, so I won’t.
Highly recommended. Read it for yourself.