“This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike.” (Loc 102)
The Changeling is an adult fairy tale by American author Victor LaValle. Last year, I read his 2016 novella The Ballard of Black Tom, a reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Hook (1927). It was an impressive, very readable story which depicted the events of the original, infamously-racist Lovecraft tale from a different character’s perspective. LaValle’s 2009 novel Big Machine won the Shirley Jackson Award. He has also written a collection of short stories Slapboxing with Jesus (1999), and the novels The Ecstatic (2002) and The Devil in Silver (2012).
Recently married couple, Apollo Kagwa and Emma Valentine, lives in New York. Emma is a librarian and Apollo a used bookseller. After the birth of their son, Brian, life seems good as they both enjoy adapting to parenthood. LaValle takes his time setting the scene of this young couple’s life, revealing their characters in the tiny details: Emma’s difficulties with breastfeeding, and Apollo’s penchant for uploading blurry baby-pics onto Facebook. But after some unexplainable images start appearing on their smartphones, a staggering event takes place in their apartment turning Apollo and Emma’s’ world on its head.
“Someone in the apartment was screaming. Had been screaming for a while now. Was it him? No. He didn’t think so. […] He couldn’t see. Felt nothing. But he could hear. That goddamn screaming. Wailing. And it wouldn’t stop.” (Loc 1668)
The original fairy tales or “Children’s and Household Tales” compiled by the Brothers Grimm were not for children. They were German folk tales collected from traditional storytellers as well as some of the Grimm’s’ acquaintances. The tales were toned down and sanitized in each successive volume released during the Brothers’ lifetime. Since then, they have had the added misfortune to become Disneyfied into the saccharine-sweet and simple morality tales of today. One wonders what the Grimms would make of them now.
The Changeling is not a book for children either, although they would probably enjoy some of the more fantastic parts of it. I was surprised by a couple of disturbing scenes in here which may shock readers expecting a modern fairy tale in the vein of the recent Beauty and the Beast movie. There are some unnerving dream sequences, too, which have a unique atmosphere that gives rise to feelings of genuine unease. Yet there is beauty to be found in this story, as well as a couple of beasts.
“A man stood in the hallway. […] This man’s face looked blue. He had no nose or mouth, only eyes. He pushed his way inside. The man knelt down in front of Apollo and pulled off his blue skin.” (Loc 2989)
Apollo Kagwa is a wonderfully-realized character. I don’t know how much of Victor LaValle is in Apollo, but he quickly stepped off the pages and moved into my head the more I read. His enthusiasm for new-fatherhood is palpable, as is his love for his wife. Having such a believable character helps ground this fantastic story in a kind of reality, and encourages the reader to invest emotionally in Apollo and his journey. And what a strange journey it is.
LaValle calls this story a “fairy tale” in the opening line, and readers should enjoy discovering some of the tropes common to classic fairy tales. There is a hero who embarks on a dangerous quest; encounters with witches and trolls; a hidden treasure which could change the hero’s life; and more which I won’t reveal here. These classic motifs are mixed in with the author’s take on more current themes like immigration, poverty, surveillance, privacy, and the popularity of social networks.
“You and me are old enough to remember that War Games movie, right? Ferris Bueller was in it. This rack right here is more powerful than that whole fucking supercomputer. That shit was so big, they had to hide it in a mountain! Mine fits in the spare bedroom of a basement apartment in Queens.” (Loc 2920)
The Changeling is a fascinating story. Warm and cozy at times, desperate and frightening at others. With its subtle warnings about how much of ourselves we reveal through modern technology, this feels like a necessary book for our age. Like so many of us, Apollo wants answers. He wants to understand his life and the strange moments that have led him to where he is. He becomes a truth seeker following a modern trail of breadcrumbs through the dark forest of present-day New York.
[With thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the digital review copy. All opinions are my own.]