By Victor Lavalle
Spiegel & Grau
436 pages, $28
Forget the movies by the same name -- Clint Eastwood's 2009 police procedural starring Angeline Jolie or George C. Scott's 1980 horror film set in Canada. For all the critical respect they have earned, they share little with the work at hand beyond the title and genre. This "Changeling" persists in memory, calling the reader back again and again.
Victor Lavalle's new, many-layered version transfers the changeling tales from most of medieval Europe and parts of Africa through time and space -- and cultures -- to today's Manhattan. Various tales through the ages describe trolls or fairies abducting human babies and putting a troll or fairy baby in the human infant's place. Occasionally a mother is abducted to breastfeed an infant troll for a set time, say, until it learns to walk. Then she is released back to the human world.
The tales also include various ways, some of them horrifyingly brutal, of telling if your baby is a substitute. One method is to put the live child in a hot oven. Here, Lavalle has a sophisticated young mother drench her infant son with boiling water, plenty of it. The process takes a long time, with all the baby's cries heard in the next room by his father (labeled a "New Dad" by Lavalle), chained to a kitchen chair by the mom, Emma. Then she disappears, leaving the apartment spattered with blood.
Some puzzling plot work follows, with the husband, Apollo, demanding at gunpoint that Emma's fellow librarians tell him where she has fled. That siege lets the author drive home the Manhattan-ness of his setting by putting Apollo into the notorious Riker's Island prison and having him released a few weeks letter into a nightmarish city. Although the book would have worked well without the library/prison episode, it is a model, a tutorial for prospective authors of creating and intensifying atmosphere.
The episode also illustrates Lavalle's use of a magicians' technique, distraction leading the reader down one plot pathway, as the story really is being advanced in the background or off to the side. Between his use of suggestion and distraction, he eases the readers into a new state, where nothing is as it seems.
Why does Emma raise such a fuss when she sees a photograph of baby Brian beside a friend's driveway, while Apollo helps with some project? Is that when the switch occurs? When the evil goblin snatches little Brian and puts an impostor in his place? Is that why Emma keeps shouting later to Apollo, "It's not a baby," as she tortures -- it? "Sometimes I look at Brian, and I don't think he's my son," Emma tells her sister, Kim, elsewhere.
The boiling water scene occurs about a quarter of the way into the book. Lavalle's super-modern ambience sends Apollo with Brian each morning to a local park, where he befriends other "New Dads." The New Dads wear their children, in back packs or belly-bumpers. They are emotionally available and fix all the mistakes of the Old Dads. They do not know how to do serious home repair, but they can pay for it.
Apollo and Emma come with rich biographies, starting with Apollo's grandparents. Emma has put Kim through nursing school in Virginia, and now Kim is a nurse-midwife in Manhattan. Emma has lived for a year or so in various Brazilian locales, but what that odyssey has to do with her career as a librarian is left blank. No mention is made of any voodoo or black magic or zombies, but somehow the idea occurs to us. Lavalle has mastered the art of suggestion: the reader has to be alert to pick up hints he plants in less obvious points in the story, while he distracts us with drama.
At a swank celebration dinner, he hits a sour note: "The median age of these customers was billionaire. Even the busboys in this place were white." While he refrains from shouting about racial difficulties, Lavalle observes possible connections between his characters' race and their life paths.
With the death of the infant Brian, the tone of the book darkens. The shadowy corners of cultural consciousness take on more and more reality, as the changeling myth grips Apollo in his search for Emma and for the truth about his baby's fate. He tracks Emma to an esoteric cult in the heart of New York City, with its weird gatekeepers. One minute he is in Central Park; the next, in some dark, tangled, other-dimensional forest. What is real? What is imagined?
In one of the darkest scenes, Apollo forces the opening of the child's grave. Preparation for what they find there has taken up most of the book. Lavalle's mythic research and his creative take on all of it have earned our respect: that secret will remain untold outside the book's covers.
A little research on changeling myths in general shows how widespread the story has been through the centuries and how societal needs have been served by ostracizing children with certain physical and mental conditions. As late as 1895, supposedly reputable writers have reported that such-and-such a person was a changeling, not a true human.
From Nigeria to Sweden, the stories persist, including the potential brutality in "discerning" who may or not be a changeling. Even a recent European soap opera has elder family members hiding unnamed objects in a baby's bed -- perhaps something iron, as the Swedes have done, to ward off the goblins.
Lavalle casts some up-to-date light on one of the more obscure areas of cultural development, the political and social uses of myth. Without destroying the magic of these old stories, he has made "The Changeling" well worth the time and effort its 436 pages demand of today's readers.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.