One of the most vivid, sad, and frightening scenes in Little, Big is about a changeling. Sophie brings the thing with which the faeries have replaced her infant daughter Lilac to George Mouse, hoping against hope for some kind of help:
“Then I saw it climbing up the stairs. Stair by stair. It looked — what’s the word — it looked purposeful: like it knew where it was going. So I said, ‘Hey, wait a second, buster –‘ I couldn’t think of it as a girl — and I reached for its arm. It felt weird, cold, and dry, like leather. It looked back at me with this look of hate — who the fuck are you — and it pulled away, and I pulled back, and –” George sat again, overcome. “It tore. I tore a hole in the god damn thing. Rrrrip. A hole opened up near its shoulder, and you could look in, like into a doll — empty. I let go fast. It didn’t seem to be hurt, just flapped the arm, like damn now it’s busted, and crawled on; and its blanket was coming off, and I could see there were some other cracks and splits here and there — at the knees, you know, and the ankles. This kid was falling apart.”
Three years ago, Jenny at Reading the End wrote a review of Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement, which is also about a changeling. I had forgotten about the book until she mentioned it again recently, at which time I pounced. Yovanoff’s book turns the situation around. What is it like to be that purposeful changeling in a family, a society, where you never belonged?
Mackie Doyle, the narrator of the story, is the thing with which the faeries replaced his family’s infant son Malcolm. The difference is that he’s survived infancy, survived toddlerhood, into adolescence. But like the changeling in Crowley, Mackie is now falling apart. He’s allergic to iron, and to blood; a skinned knee can send him into a fainting spell, and it takes him days to recover. He can’t walk on consecrated ground, even though his father is the pastor of a church; he just has to linger outside and look like the rebellious adolescent he’d prefer not to be. He’s constantly exhausted and ill. He spends his remaining energy trying not to seem different (even though he and his family know that he is irrecoverably, fundamentally different) — if the townsfolk of Gentry found out who or what he was, they’d turn on him.
Because Malcolm is not the first child who’s disappeared in Gentry, and he won’t be the last. The town is ruled by faeries (not that Gentry will name this phenomenon) who protect the town and make it essentially recession-proof. In return, they demand adulation, love… and blood sacrifice. This time, they’ve taken Mackie’s friend Tate’s baby sister Natalie, and Tate — a ferocious and furious girl who sees through Gentry’s comfortable lies — wants her sister back.
(A brief interruption: this is something Little, Big never really addresses. The faeries in that novel wage war, or some simulacrum of it, and they do things that cause sorrow to humans, or radically inconvenience them, but there is no “teind to hell” or anything like it. This goes against all the literature. Hmmm.)
In any case, the most interesting thing about this book is the way we look inside Mackie, and unlike Crowley’s changeling, he is not empty. He isn’t a person — he finds that with more habit and use, he might be more comfortable underground with the faeries than with his own family. But he isn’t entirely one of them, either: he reacts against the justifications and rules of Faerie as much as against his own allergens. Who is Mackie? We don’t know, and neither does he. But he is a terrific character.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the dialogue. All the description and all the stuff inside Mackie’s head was thoroughly enjoyable, but the actual dialogue was sometimes painfully banal. But the characterization was good nonetheless; there are small movements and actions that tell us more than any of the words. Some of the secondary characters are equally lovely. Mackie’s friends Roswell and Danny and Drew are well thought-out. Roswell in particular, whose family has never had a changeling in it and appears to be literally charmed, is interesting: I would have liked to see more about what it takes to be charmed in a cursed town. Mackie’s sister Emma was very believable. And the faerie realm was definitely eerie enough for me. (Did you know that the Morrigan is often depicted as three sisters? More sisterly stuff, very nice.)
Thanks to Jenny for the recommendation! And, more good changeling/ faerie books, please. And, I am recommending this book to you now.