Genre: Dark Fairy Tale/Fantasy
Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.
This captivating retelling of a classic fairy tale imaginatively explores parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of the people we love the most. It’s a thrilling and emotionally devastating journey through the gruesome legacies that threaten to devour us and the homely, messy magic that saves us, if we’re lucky.
In the preface to an LA Times interview with the author, Nichole Perkins summarizes the plot of The Changeling, as "a horrifying fairy tale about the maze of parenthood, shrouded by the shadows of our own upbringing. The award-winning author blends literary allusions, horror and social commentary to create a riveting piece of work that will have readers examining their own views about parenthood while worrying if they’ll ever sleep again.”
Although the title of LaValle's novel takes its name from the changelings of ancient folk and fairy tales, the story itself is a changeling of a different sort, beginning as a family saga set in the reality of 21st century New York City—specifically, Queens—and then slipping into a horrific, dark world of betrayal and abandonment, drowning and burning, and—eventually—monsters and witches and things that go bump in the night. So...don't be deceived by the early chapters that lay out Apollo's family history like an Ancestry.com summary of a typical American immigration experience. If you read carefully, you'll recognize the dark seeds that LaValle has planted throughout the story—seeds that will sprout and blossom and then, just as quickly, wither and die.
Another theme running through the story relates to living happily ever after—that HEA ending of modern fairy tales (and all paranormal romances)—which we all wish for ourselves and our loved ones. But Apollo learns early that although periods of happiness are certainly possible, it's the "ever after" that is the problem. Early on, Apollo finds a rare, signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird at an estate sale and happily dreams of how the money he will receive for it will change the lives of his young son and his beautiful wife. But he soon learns that the particular happiness of that moment will never happen. As events in Apollo's life take him into dark, violent places, he learns that happiness must be taken as it comes and that there is no guarantee that it will even last the day, much less for ever after.
LaValle uses Harper Lee's opposing portrayals of Atticus Finch (in Mockingbird and in Go Set a Watchman) to reinforce the duality of most people's personalities and the masks they use to put their "good" side forward. In signing the rare Mockingbird first edition, Lee has written "Here is the daddy of our dreams," as if she knew very well that her readers would prefer the perfect Atticus—the dream daddy—in Mockingbird over the racist version of the same man in Watchman. In an interview, LaValle states, "It’s interesting to me, as I became a father and in thinking about my own missing father, to understand how much power we give to the idea of the father and how much many people need to believe in the idea of a good and beneficent father."
I highly recommend this novel for the many reasons I have discussed above, particularly its magnificent imagery, beautifully drawn characters, compelling plot, and electrifying suspense. LaValle has created a fresh and inventive hybrid—a mash-up of fairy tales, horror elements, social commentary, and the literalization of myth (in this case, Internet trolls vs. folktale trolls). Although this is the first of LaValle's books that I have read, I now plan to dip into his previous novels and novellas for more of his vibrant, exciting fiction.