ARTICLE – REVIEW (October 2018)
‘This fantastical horror plays skilfully on parental anxieties’
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Reviewed by CAROLYN PERCY
APOLLO Kagwa’s father disappeared when he was a child, leaving him with nothing except a recurring nightmare and a box marked ‘Improbabilia’, which, amongst other things, contained a children’s book: Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There.
Apollo finds solace in books and grows up to be a reasonably successful book-dealer. Now married to librarian Emma and with new baby son Brian, it’s happily-ever-after. But the happy ending doesn’t last.
Emma’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange, culminating in a shockingly unthinkable act that sends Apollo on a quest through the phantasmagorical side of New York he never knew existed, in search of a wife and child he’s no longer sure he recognises.
A note to the cover of the UK paperback edition of American author Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, from Pulitzer prize winner Anthony Doerr, describes LaValle’s style as “If the literary gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison,” and this isn’t a bad thumbnail description.
Like Murakami, the surreal elements often arise from motifs of the everyday, and, like Ellison, he tackles recognisable social topics (and though race isn’t the main theme – Apollo is the ‘result’ of the relationship between a West African mother and a white American father – it’s not glossed over).
Beneath its horror exterior however, The Changeling is a story about parenthood, something which – with its ferocious, all-consuming love – is capable of making people into monsters as well as saints.
LaValle plays skilfully on the anxieties and paranoia of new parents. Who or what could be watching their children with questionable intent? It’ll make you think twice about posting any pictures of your kids onto social media ever again.
Plus the fear factor of there being something wrong with your baby: is Emma’s strange behaviour just the result of being an exhausted new mum, or something more?
Also in the mix: is Apollo right or wrong to dismiss her worries? (Having concerns brushed off as ‘hysteria’ by well-meaning others, usually men, will resonate with many women.)
The cameo inclusion of Outside Over There – a story about a young girl who must rescue her little sister who has been stolen away by goblins – is a neat piece of foreshadowing.
There is also much that is reminiscent of Stephen King, not least the violence (which is often brutal), but in how much depth the characters have.
The first part of the story is devoted to seemingly mundane things: Apollo’s parents getting together; Apollo growing up; meeting Emma; their relationship and subsequent marriage; the birth of their son.
So that, by the time bad things begin to happen to them, they’re already so grounded in reality you care about them, making the violence and fantastical elements all the more effective.
Also reminiscent of King is that, supernatural entities aside, it’s often the humans who are worse monsters.
Beneath the trappings of the twisted modern day fairy-tale, The Changeling is ultimately a story about just how far a parent will go to protect their child.
In short, a fantastical horror with a very human centre.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is published in paperback by Cannongate.