Review: The Changeling – Victor LaValle

38472648Verdict: It’s complicated.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Published by Canongate, July 5th, 2018

Genre: Fairy-tale Horror.

Find it on Goodreads.

When Apollo Kagwa was just a child, his father disappeared, leaving him with recurring nightmares and a box labelled ‘Improbabilia’. Now a successful book dealer, Kagwa has a family of his own after meeting and falling in love with Emma, a librarian. The two marry and have a baby: so far so happy-ever-after. However, as the pair settle into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Emma’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, until one day she commits an unthinkable act, setting Apollo on a wild and fantastical quest through a suddenly otherworldly New York, in search of a wife and child he no longer recognises.

An epic novel for our anxiety-ridden times, The Changeling is a tale of parenthood, love – in its most raw and brutal form – and ultimately, humanity.

I think this book went over my head. I cannot be quite sure but I do think so. I had the overwhelming feeling of just missing something here – and I cannot quite put my finger on what that was. Bear that in mind while I try to figure out my thoughts while writing.

In this book we follow Apollo and his wife both before they meet and after they have had their son. For about a third of the book, there is some menace lurking but mostly the story is whimsical and quite lovely, until suddenly it shifts gears in the most traumatic way possible and Apollo’s life spin out of control.

This book is genre defying in a way I usually absolutely adore – it is fairy-talesque in its whimsy and its frequent re-telling of familiar stories, it is horrifying beyond measure in a way that makes It seem quaint, it is a social commentary cleverly disguised as a page turner, it is a book about family and love and trust and the lengths we can go. And writing this down makes me want to change my rating but ultimately there were long stretches here where the book lost me. I found Apollo a difficult character to root for in the single-mindedness of his approach. He reacts more than he acts (and I like how this mirrors the way Germanic fairy-tales are structured) and flip-flops in his understanding of what is going on in a way that made being so close to him frustrating.

The tonal shift I spoke about earlier first works brilliantly – the silent horror of the earlier scenes are full of foreboding and impressively rendered (I shudder to think of the first scene of Emma receiving a message that then disappears – so simple and so effective) and build the perfect crescendo to that scene (if you read the book you know which one I mean). After that the book seems to lose a bit of steam, important scenes are told in flashbacks, some strands of the story never go anywhere, and the reader is expected to go along for the ride – which sometimes worked better than other times.

I think ultimately my enjoyment or maybe sometimes lack thereof comes down to genre preference. The whole book felt so unfair. And I do not deal well with unfair. It makes me feel anxious and stressed and doesn’t compel me to pick a book up. But nevertheless, this is in parts a brilliant book, with many many clever things I will be mulling over for some time to come.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Canongate in exchange for an honest review.

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