The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue
Expectations and presumptions are dangerous things. I opened Keith Donohue’s debut novel, The Stolen Child, with plenty of them, and found myself disillusioned with what I found myself reading. A simple plot summary is as follows: A young changeling and his hobgoblin fellows snatch seven-year-old Henry Day and takes his place in the human world. The real Henry (henceforth known as Aniday) begins his new life as a creature of the wild, whilst the changeling (now known as Henry) copes with his sudden reintegration into the human world. The story takes us across several years of Henry’s life, through childhood, adolescence, marriage and fatherhood as he struggles to discover what it means to be human. Meanwhile, stripped of his memories as a human, Aniday lives a free but harsh life among the goblins whose main occupation is waiting… waiting for their chance to re-enter the human world.
There is an interesting variation on the changeling myth at work throughout the story: Donohue imagines a group of hobgoblins, each of varying ages (based on how long they`ve been a goblin). They carefully scope out a potential child that can be stolen away, and it is the oldest changeling granted the honour of returning to the human world. The newfound goblin then finds himself/herself at the bottom of the ladder, required to wait until those above him find appropriate children to switch with (something that can take centuries) before they are finally allowed to attempt to return to humanity (by which stage they will have several new hobgoblins waiting in line behind them.)
But The Stolen Child failed to impress me in one crucial area. Changeling myths are marked by a mystery and a sinister feeling given that no one really knows why otherworldly forces snatch away children. Other contemporary authors have suggested for breeding purposes, or for tithes to hell, others speculate that it’s simply because they can. Donohue doesn’t give an answer. Because he has established the changeling-beings as part of a neverending cycle of reintegration and replacement, the inevitable question arises as to how this first began. Who were the first changelings? Why did they steal children? How did all this begin?
The lack of an answer was my main point of contention; not at the author, but at myself for presuming that The Stolen Child was something that it wasn’t. The novel has often been described as “a fairytale for grown-ups”. I beg to differ. The changeling element of the story is inconsequential (indeed, with the exception of their unnaturally long lives and shape-shifting, the hobgoblins could just as easily be a gang of feral children), and is important only in that it allows Donohue to set up the dichotomy and core relationship of the book: what it feels like for Henry and Aniday to live out each other’s lives. Each one’s experiences are told in alternating chapters (and for the record, Henry’s story is the most interesting of the two, especially when he begins to investigate his human life before he himself was taken by the goblins) and often intersect in ingenious and alarming ways.
And just as often in rather silly ways. A woman in a red coat has a run-in with Aniday on a country road. Later she approaches Henry and insists that the young child she saw was him. Even supposing that the woman did manage to remember Henry/Aniday’s face from a brief encounter in the darkness of the night several years ago, why would she make a scene about the incident in the aftermath of Henry’s piano recital? This isn’t the only stretch of credibility, and before someone objects to this on the ground that this is a fantasy novel, I remind them that Donohue bases his work heavily on realism (it far, far outweighs any ‘fairytale’ element).
But no one can contest the fact that Donohue tells his story beautifully, as The Stolen Child is written in delicate prose that perfectly captures the bittersweetness — even heartrending — quality of the double-life scenario. Forgive my criticism, as the truth was I was enraptured throughout the course of the story as to what was going to happen next; and I especially loved the way that the same events were related from the entirely separate points of view of Henry and Aniday. This leaves you wondering what actually happened during any particular event and challenges you to find the truth within the opposing views. This is the real purpose of Donohue’s first novel, finding the space between what-ifs and maybe-so’s. If someone had told me this before I started reading, I probably would have enjoyed it to its full extent and been happier with the open-ended conclusion. Consider yourself warned, and enjoy!
The Stolen Child started off as one of the best books I’ve read lately. The tale of two Henry’s (Human Henry, kidnapped at seven by a group of hobgoblins and hobgoblin Henry — the changeling who takes Human Henry’s place) the book alternates between the two as narrators, covering the several decades since the child swap. Each struggles to fully enter his new world: Human Henry is haunted by his memories of his earlier life and Hobgoblin Henry is haunted by both his past life before he was taken by the hobgoblins a hundred years ago and by his fear of his original hobgoblin group and their role in his new life.
As mentioned, the book begins wonderfully. Both narrative voices are compelling, as are their individual stories. One feels their early fears and the tension that arises in both groups as neither is fully accepted. Human Henry isn’t fully trusted by his new hobgoblin family yet (and betrays that trust when he first receives it) and Hobgoblin Henry never fully wins over his father after he is “found” that day he ran away at age seven.
The voice and the struggles of the two narrators to fully immerse themselves in their new worlds carries the reader along easily for the first half of the book, but slowly little inconsistencies and flaws begin to rear their heads, marring the reading experience. One major problem is the portrayal of the hobgoblin band. These are not joyous sprites or even mischievous creatures with powerful magic. They live lives of hard squalor and hunger and while we’re told of moments of beauty in their lives, these come too few and too far between to understand why the hobgoblins stay as they are, especially when the modern world begins to encroach on their territory — paving over their home, putting up more and more housing, squeezing them into ever worse living conditions.
We’re told there is a strict hierarchy for which hobgoblins get to swap places with a human child and reenter the human world, and that it often takes a hundred years or more. In fact, we see this with the leader of the hobgoblins, who is over a 100 years old and fears taking his place once more among humanity. But by the end this strict hierarchy has completely broken down, the hobgoblins are showing themselves regularly to humans, and some are even simply rejoining humans as they are rather than wait for a swap. One wonders what took so long if all they need do is offer themselves up to the cops. Would they rather freeze in the woods and eat bugs? Obviously yes, at least until Human Henry shows up, but we’re never really given any sense of why they would prefer the hobgoblin life. This is a nagging flaw that by the end turns into a huge one as it seems to undermine the whole premise of the story.
Other problems are that the end seems rushed, the meeting of the two Henry’s — the way to which has clearly been pointed since the start — is woefully anticlimactic, and too many coincidences begin to pile up, including an all too hard to believe meeting between principals three thousand miles away from the main action. As well, Hobgoblin Henry’s pursuit of his past seems to taper off and his new life becomes all too abstract, with a wife and child that seem more props for the plot than an actual presence in his life.
In the end, the book is a bit of a disappointment, more so when one remembers back to the very beginning. There is a lot to like — the themes of identity and humanity’s effect on the world and all forms of love — and the language is often striking in its beauty and pacing; one just wishes it had come closer to meeting its opening promise. Still, I recommend it for that wonderful opening, which carries the reader through at least the first half. By that point, you may as well keep going and at best, you’ll enjoy it all the way through. At worst, you’ll be mildly disappointed but will fondly remember how compelled you were at the start. Recommended with all the above caveats.
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