The Changeling – by Victor LaValle

As I mentioned, this book has been lying in my stash for a while. All this time, I thought I had at least a vague idea of what I could expect from it – but as soon as I started it, I realised I was in uncharted territory. So I just went and enjoyed the ride, allowing myself to be surprised at every page.

Title: The Changeling

Author: Victor LaValle

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Publication Date: 13 June 2017

Genre: Urban Fantasy – Horror

Pages: 431

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: When Apollo Kagwa was a child, his father disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a mystrious box of books. A few decades later, Apollo is now a father himself; both him and his wife Emma are struggling to adjust to their new parental role, and as exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll, nightmarish suspicions creep more and more intrusively into their lives. Until one day Emma commits a horrific and incomprehensible act, then seemingly vanishes into thin air. Apollo must then embark on a very personal odyssey to make sense of his world once again, dealing with magical forces, as well as with repressed memories.

Analysis: The story is told in third person by an omniscent narrator, that at first hovers savvily above characters and facts, quickly spanning over deaceds and generations, and later zooms closer to the ground and to Apollo’s limited perspective. The prose mixes the timeless tone of a fairy tale with very concrete references to modern life, thus blurring the borders between the magical and the mundane.

A sizeable portion of the book is spent describing what seems to be a mostly realistic life experience, adopting a quiet pace and an almost minimalistic attention to ordinary events; a surreal, disturbing note is only very sublty lurking in the background, leaving us with the impression that something might be off, but nevertheless unable to properly pin it down.

At the end of the first arc, Emma’s apparent act of insanity comes to shatter not just Apollo’s illusion of normalcy, but also the previous tone and pace of the novel, that now suddenly drops the appearances of a family drama and quickly turns into a thrilling mystery that blends human madness and supernatural threats.

In doing so, the novel effectively rewrites a classical folk myth – that of the titular changeling – to mirror modern-days fears and obsessions; while in the end real magical creatures are involved , the novel heavily focuses on the experience of modern parenthood, shaped by performative happiness, societal fads, mediatic overexposure; the threat of ancient curses and evil eyes is here replaced by that of malicious hackers and mental illness, but the underlying anxiety, the unspeakable mixed feelings, are perhaps still connected to more ancestral fears.

At the same time, and despite its magical motifs, the novel is strongly rooted in our contermporary reality, and more specifically in the dynamics of American society. New York is clearly recognizable in its landmarks, its description vivid enough to count as an additional character. Unlike the characters of traditional Western fairy tales, our main characters are Black, which in many ways and more or less subtly informs their actions and their consequences – in mundane terms, because they must be especially wary of the police when venturing in some white neighbourhood; but also more dramatically when it’s revealed that their supernatural enemies have spent generations literally feeding otherized children into the system, here represented by the greedy troll who in exchange granted safety and prosperity to its servants.

Conclusions & Recommendations: The novel is an emotional rollercoaster that plays with the reader’s sympathies, trust, expectations, and discomfort. It’s a very engaging read, that at the same time touches upon a number sensitive topics. As it effectively combines subjects and styles both of urban fantasy and of contemporary fiction, it may easily appeal to the lovers of both genres. It is, more in general, an exquisite read that you should not miss.

Content Warning: Child Death – Murder – Violence – Suicidal Thoughts – Racism – Mental Illness

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