I’ve been interested in stories about changelings for a long time. I can’t quite trace the source of the interest — perhaps part of my more general interest in stories about interactions between fairies and humans, and that goes back to obsessive re-reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, so that might sort it. But anyway, as a result, I’ve read two or three books about changelings, from different perspectives, with different outcomes, and enjoyed them more or less. The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, is absolutely the best of the lot.
Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and a new dad (actually a New Dad, as he frames himself, one of the Good Ones, who is determined to do his share of loving as his own father didn’t) in New York. He’s in love with his wife Emma and his baby son Brian, named after that disappeared father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an act of unspeakable violence and disappears, Apollo is left with the shreds of his unravelled life. In order to find himself again, or her, or his child, he must follow strange hints and clues through forests and rivers and labyrinths and caves that are all, somehow, in the boroughs of New York.
So I say that. And that’s the basic plot. But there is so much to this book. For one thing, the warmth and the complications of race infuse it in a way that makes it exciting and interesting to read. Throughout, it’s a story of black people loving each other, cooking, caring, talking, planning, listening, watching out for each other. Logistically, it presents practical problems: how do you hunt a changeling in one of the magical places of New York, if the neighborhood watch is likely to report you for walking the sidewalk? Structurally, it’s a story of greed and exploitation that makes more sense the deeper you go.
For another thing, it gives such a sense of history. The notion of the changeling itself is an old one — the folklore goes back a long way in different cultures — and Lavalle plays on many different myths and stories, incorporating new ones like Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (and even To Kill a Mockingbird, in a sinister twist.) It makes for a rich background for this new take.
I wanted more of Emma’s perspective, more of her voice. I would read a sequel that was just her retelling of all of this. But that feels like a quibble in a book I enjoyed so thoroughly. I am really looking forward to reading more of Lavalle’s work. If you know where I should start, I’ll take recommendations.