“How do we protect our children?” Cal said quietly.
Apollo watched the soft little shape in his hand. “Obviously I don’t know.”
Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling (2017) is a five-star book, one of the year’s best. I predict this thoughtful modern dark fantasy novel — or it might be horror — will be shortlisted on several awards and Best Of lists.
LaValle takes the tropes of traditional middle European fairy tales and blends them perfectly with a view of modern living, specifically modern living in New York City. He uses this blend to explore the terrifying state of parenthood, when a person’s life, and heart, become inextricably yoked to another human being.
Apollo Kagwa’s father left when Apollo was four. His strong Ugandan immigrant mother managed to work full time and raise him, but after his father disappeared, Apollo had a series of dreams or nightmares about him. Then one day there was a knock at the door. Left on the doorstep was a box of ephemera, labeled Improbabilia. It included strange bits of things, including the Maurice Sendak book Outside Over There that Apollo’s father used to read to him. Apollo grew up and put the bad dreams behind him, making a successful living as a used book dealer, a “book man.”
Emma Valentine’s parents died in a house fire when she was a child, and she was raised by her sister Kim. Emma is a librarian. She is small, slender, and tough, filled with an inner fire. She and Apollo fall in love, get married, and soon Emma is pregnant. They plan a home birth with Kim, who is a midwife, assisting, but births often do not go as planned, and Emma delivers baby Brian on a subway car.
Emma and Apollo, while outwardly successful, both carry the wounds of their childhoods. The protagonist here is Apollo, and when Emma commits an atrocity against their child, it is Apollo’s disbelief, pain and rage that we feel. There is little lead-up to what Emma does, no reason, and we, like Apollo are confused and stunned. Emma disappears. Apollo’s rage leads him to a rash act that lands him in jail, so not only is he devastated and enraged, he is also helpless. When he is released from jail, he is vulnerable. He a black man, and now he is a black man on probation.
Apollo’s drive to understand what happened leads him to strange places and meetings with strange people. In a “survivors group” he is ordered to attend as part of his probation he hears a disturbed woman saying the same words Emma said. Apollo meets a group of women and children on an island in the East River and an eccentric man who writes phone apps and is trying to find his estranged wife. The nightmares from childhood return, and Apollo gradually peels away layers of untruths and beliefs, to discover what really happened to his wife and child.
One trope of middle European folk and fairy tales is the forest, usually the dark forest. LaValle evokes the dark forest throughout The Changeling. Even early in the book before things start to go wrong for Emma and Apollo, LaValle reminds us that this is a fairy tale, when Apollo meets his wife and her best friend at a trendy restaurant and is surrounded by the smell of apples. The friend tells Apollo that Emma reminds her of a sorceress, and this image will recur with Emma. There is the red string that Emma wears around her wrist when she returns from a trip to Brazil; there is a literal forest, and there are the rules of European folklore, such as warnings against inviting evil into your home.
There is a literal monster here and there are the human monsters who serve it. There are witches, if you define “witch” as a woman with power who is not owned by a man. Apollo’s search for his wife is a quest into the dark forest. In a story with a librarian and a bookseller, you might expect a magic book, and there are two; one is To Kill a Mockingbird. Is it magic? It makes a point; with the decades-later sequel Go Set a Watchman, it makes a point about fatherhood. And there is Outside Over There.
The Changeling is frustrating to review because it is so rich. The main story here is Apollo coming to grips with fatherhood. After Brian’s birth, he is the New Dad; he wears baby Brian in a baby-sling, takes him on book searches, changes diapers. He’s involved. He’s present. He is also besotted with his infant and takes dozens of photos of him, photos which he immediately uploads to Facebook. This is another theme of the book; in the Information Age, is the internet the dark forest? Before she does what she does, Emma gets texts and photos of Brian, and it’s clear Apollo didn’t take them. When she tries to show them to Apollo, they’re gone. Did she imagine them? Late in the book a character points out that you are not supposed to invite a vampire into your home. When you go onto the internet, you are inviting the world in. Apollo sees this in a Facebook page set up for Baby Brian, a space that is overrun with trolls and people who say cruel and vicious things:
Apollo felt his breath leaving him, dizziness so severe he might black out. What had he been worrying about twenty minutes earlier? Fucking witches? Why worry over witches when the Internet could conjure so much worse?
As Apollo searches through real life streets and the increasingly surreal corners and thresholds of New York, he constantly faces another real life issue. He is a person of color. When he and his friend Patrice go to dig up Brian’s grave to see what is buried there, they have to contend with the fact that they are not only breaking several laws, one of those laws is Being Black While in a White Neighborhood. In the early part of The Changeling, we see Apollo using various stratagems to reassure white homeowners who have invited him to their house that he is okay, that he is harmless. Towards the end of the book, when he is close to finding Emma, he is rousted by two beat cops who inform him that he is in an area called Little Norway and he had better catch the next bus out of the neighborhood.
This is not a marquee part of the story, and the Little Norway cops become part of the plot. The genius here is in writing Apollo’s search into increasingly fantastical situations with a leavening of understated reality. Nothing here is too “on the nose;” the book is not saying anything as simple as “the internet is the dark forest,” or “there’s still racism.” It simply takes place in a world where those statements are true, as true as the fact that parenthood is scary; that you can get a ready-made sandwich at Starbucks, that even a miraculous father like Atticus Finch will disillusion us if we live long enough, because we will find out he’s merely human.
I don’t even have time to go into all the interesting women characters here; like Emma; like Apollo’s indomitable mother Lillian and the secret she keeps; like Cal, which is short for Callisto. I don’t have enough time to talk about the smooth, elegant prose. I will say that the book takes its time introducing the characters, beginning with Apollo’s mother and father. There are hints of darkness early on (Apollo’s nightmares), but LaValle takes his time and lets us get to know these people. And then, when things go horribly wrong, we care. We care deeply.
In a summer of exceptionally good reads for me, The Changeling stands out. It is a book I will read more than once, because it had a lot to say; but it isn’t stuffy or self-important. This is a deep, horrifying story about a man learning what fatherhood means in a world where there are monsters.
Bibliophiles and book-lovers have long been a staple in literature (think Matilda, for starters), and Victor Lavalle offers another in his novel The Changeling. Apollo Kagwa, having had an entrepreneurial streak as a child in which he sold magazines, now deals in rare and valuable first edition books in his shop in New York, the whimsically-named Improbabilia. But when he wakes up in his kitchen, locked to a hotwater pipe by a bikelock, his world is turned upside down.
Apollo’s luck doesn’t start out so dire. In fact, when we meet him, it seems his fortune is on the rise: he discovers a rare edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the auspicious dedication: ‘Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.’ (Apollo has his own abandonment issues after his father disappeared when he was a child). But Apollo’s wife has been receiving strange photographs on her phone and suddenly vanishes, it seems, into thin air.
Thus begins Apollo’s journey through a world more reminiscent of the brothers Grimm than New York City. In fact, the city itself becomes a character in its own right, interwoven with Scottish glamour, an old kind of magic. He meets a stranger who apparently has information on the whereabouts of his wife, and the story delves into a world part-horror, part-fairy tale, in which Apollo will travel through graveyards and ancient forests, rich with the myth and history of the immigrant experience.
Intermingled with ancient myth and legend is a very modern tale. The Changeling is a story about internet privacy and the dark repercussions of broadcasting your identity online. Furthermore, it is a tale of parenthood, and a very raw and real one at that. Unlike fairy tales, in which a queen and king adore their blessed newborn, Apollo and his wife Emma are exhausted by their new baby. It seems Emma might be suffering from post-natal depression and breaks down crying on her way to work. Apollo posts endless photos online in the hope of validating his new fatherhood through the internet response to his pictures.
Lavalle handles plot and pacing with panache, due in part to punchy chaptering. Though the plot has seemingly endless threads, he manages to weave together the first edition novel (purchased before the whole nightmare began), the reasoning behind his wife’s actions, as well as the fate of his son.
And as fans of Lavalle’s previous work will already know, his prose is a reason in and of itself to read the novel. Dark and haunting images strung together in a style not many authors can boast. The story is emotional — heart-wrenching at times — but never to the point of being sentimental.
Fans of American Gods will be delighted by Lavalle’s offering, and the difficulty in defining its genre will draw in a wide range of readers. For a ‘horror’ novel to centre around the difficulties of parenthood is innovative and with a journey of new fatherhood at its core, The Changeling will immerse readers in its dark world.