24 July 2018

Review - The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling
Victor LaValle
Canongate Books, 5 July 2018
PB, 448pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

Like LaValle's last book, The Ballad of Black Tom (my review here) The Changeling brings the fantastical and magical to New York, but whereas Ballad was very much a riposte to the racial (indeed racist) subtext of HP Lovecraft's cosmic horror,  Changeling is more of a riff on a classic trope of fairy stories, the baby stolen away (and replaced) by the Other. In locating this in the modern US and having it happen to people of colour one can't but reflect on a history of racism, but LaValle's focus is more on what has happened - or not happened - and on its effect on a family: where the earlier book addressed matters of race head on, this one is perhaps more focussed on gender, looking at the impact of a new baby on a family, the roles of mothers and fathers, the precariousness of womens' place in this world - and, ultimately, the steps they may go to for security.

That said, with the main protagonists being people of colour, race issues are never far away. There is its effect on Apollo's career as a dealer in rare books - often refused access to house sales. There is a scene where Emma and her sister wander into a park where some (White) mothers are with their children. Who are these Black women? Nannies perhaps? And so on. A litany of little differences, leading up to the moment when two cops find Apollo, late at night, in the determinedly White neighbourhood of Little Norway.

Lavalle takes his time establishing what is going on, describing in detail the background of Apollo and Emma, especially how Apollo's mother Lillian fled Uganda, came to New York and met Brian - who subsequently fades from the picture, so that she brings up her son alone. A sense of mystery about this chimes with the theme of the book, of vanishings and parenthood. Similarly, Emma  and her sister are orphans and the details aren't clear until later in the book. I like the fact that Lavalle doesn't rush - these stories are interesting in themselves, especially how Apollo builds up his rare books business. This lead up - and the subsequent very tender, story of Emma and Apollo's courtship, marriage and of her pregnancy - really grounds the book in the world of New York, and in a sense of realism: there is nothing 'weird' going on or at least nothing weirder than the early 21st century generally has to offer (which is perhaps not quite the same thing).

All this is, though, only the build up to a shocking, shattering event. It would absolutely be a spoiler to say what this is, beyond the fact that it concerns that central family, and that they'll never be the same again. LaValle really plays with your (the reader's) sympathies here (a good thing!) and the book left me questioning  everything I thought I'd understood so far . It then places the reader, with one of the main characters, in some pretty unsavoury company as they (the character) try to come to terms with what's happened. The book raises questions about trust, truth and commitment. It's desperate, heartwrenching stuff which moves the story on at pace much more than in the first part and creates a compelling situation. I did wonder whether - after that patient, early work - Lavalle hadn't, still, skipped something here. Basically a storm blows up in the family: but while we are given some early hints of trouble, a great deal of the development seems to be covered when the story skips several months, resuming with things about to reach a crisis. At the risk of making for a very long story, I'd like to have seen more filled in here.

That's only a small reservation, because once the crisis hits, it really hits and the fallout from what is a truly devastating event tales a long time to settle.

We watch, in shock, as things go on, meeting those unsavoury characters and caring about the path our protagonist seems to taking. Things seem to lurch from bad to worse, until Lavalle pivots the book and makes it into something rather different from what one assumed, showing everyone's actions in a very different light. I apologise if that seems cryptic, but I don't want to spoil the story.

A book about women and men, parenthood, trust, and secrets, The Changeling provides a great deal to think about. Inspired by fairytales it may be, but this is a gritty, contemporary fantasy-romance which grips in every page.

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