I’ll admit, I approached Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2018) with a healthy amount of trepidation.
The novel’s cover art, description, as well as some of the reviews led me to believe that the narrative could be classified as horror: the main character, Apollo Kagwa, has a Ugandan mother and a white father from upstate New York. His father mysteriously disappears when Apollo is only four years old, leaving the child haunted by “strange recurring dreams.” In adulthood, after a marrying a woman whom he relentlessly pursues and having a child with her, Apollo’s dreams return. At the same time, his wife, Emma, begins acting strangely, exhibiting what he believes are signs of postpartum depression. However, her strange behavior escalates, culminating in her “committing a horrific act and vanishing.”
You can understand why I was a little leery of undertaking the read.
But after four months of a steady diet of autobiographies for my latest writing project, I was ready to delve into the imaginary. I am so glad I took the plunge.
The Changeling is a beautifully crafted work of imagination that is, rather than horror, more along the lines of magical realism. I was immediately drawn to the story because, not only is Lavalle a gifted wordsmith, but he sets the narrative in New York, largely Queens, where I spent all of my childhood and teenage years. Major points!!
The book is pretty long—431 pages—but the chapters are no more than five pages, with most of them being two. While this would seem to provide a break to allow the reader to head off and do other things with her life, his writing is so gripping—he does a wonderful thing whereby he ends almost each chapter with a teaser or cliffhanger—that she (meaning me) had no desire to go to the gym or make dinner, or do any of the other hundred things I was supposed to be doing.
The Changeling was deservedly voted a Notable Book by the New York Times in 2017.
The accolades from Marlon James, author of one of my favorite novels, The Book of Night Women (2010) that I will in all likelihood never be able to read again because it is so disturbing, are warranted.
The cover art by Yuko Shimizu is beautiful and a fitting precursor to the haunting tale within.
I will say, I didn’t particularly like Apollo as a person. In fact, I’d call him a jerk. My aversion to the character, I think, speaks to how well developed he is. As another reviewer points out, he is “a man who doesn’t take no for an answer” and “who cuts wishes from his wife’s wrist.”
When he reached across the dinner table and with no warning, cut Emma’s wish string, I had a visceral revulsion, partly because I’ve known quite a few men who think it’s their prerogative to curtail a woman’s dreams in the name of “love” when it’s really about possession.
I was also reminded of my own “wish string” which I was given last year at the cost of my first week-long silent retreat at Spirit Rock and which was meant to drop away on its own. If someone had tried to interrupt that process, they would’ve gotten a solid punch in the face. As it turns out the sweetest little puppy that I was roughhousing with recently snapped it off—point being, it was my choice!!
I was also really angered by Apollo’s reaction to his mother who literally saved his life when he was a child, but when she tells him the story of his father’s disappearance, blames her for the guy’s absence!!!
It’s always the mother’s fault.
“What a self-absorbed prick,” I thought, before putting the book aside to recover.
I also agree with the reviewer who notes that they would’ve liked to have had more of Emma’s perspective. The same could be said for Lillian, Apollo’s mother. Nonetheless, Lavalle does provide, at least for Emma, a strong support system in her sister, Kim, and the “witches” with whom she consorts and finds the truth. Now if he had been more respectful of his wife, Emma would’ve shown Apollo that same truth much sooner in the narrative, he is only able to access it after he has undergone several harrowing, traumatic, painful, and exhausting experiences, and most of them with his male ex-military friend, Patrice.
We may ask what this says about “the new dad” who believes he is sharing equally in the raising of his child in a way that his ancestors never did. Is it another form of delusion?
I would say yes as statistically, even in the most “progressive” cisgender heterosexual families, men perform only about 35% of the household chores.
The Changeling is a fairytale/folktale of fairytales/folktales. As such, there are lessons to be learned.
For me, the biggest lesson is Believe Women
Victor Lavalle is an enormously talented writer. I’m sure I’ll be reading more from him in the coming months.