September 14, 2006

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

Filed under: Science Fiction & Fantasy — Thomasina @ 1:04 pm

Contrary to the notion that I only post about things so that I can have an excuse to quote Yeats, the next book up for review is Keith Donahue’s The Stolen Child, both because it’s a new and beautiful example of bridging the gap between children and adult literature (albeit not precisely in the way I previously discussed) and also I’ve been looking to inaugurate our new Science Fiction and Fantasy category.

That being said, however, I confess the novel drew my eye because it takes its title from one of Yeats’s most famous lyrics (also called “The Stolen Child”), in which a child is abducted by a band of faeries. In the poem, Yeats mingles joy with sadness, for although the child will “hear no more” the familiar sounds of his life, the description of the faeries’ lives sparkles with beauty and delight. Furthermore, the faeries’ choice to take the child and make him a changeling is one of compassion: “Come away, o human child,” they refrain, “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

But Donohue’s debut novel is striking because it turns most notions of faeries on their pointy little ears. To wit, the opening line: “Don’t call me a fairy.” The band of changelings are called hobgoblins, but neither do they conform to the popular depictions of faeries or hobgoblins, which are traditionally naughty fairies (like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or faeries who have been twisted to the Dark Side. They are, instead, battling against an age in which folk legends have lost hold on the mainstream consciousness, and are forced to live secret, desparate lives on the invisible peripheries.

The story begins in the late 1940s, when the seven-year-old Henry Day ran away from home and hid himself in the hollow of a tree. He is discovered by the hobgoblin band, who are also, in this novel’s universe, by definition changeling children once abducted from their homes. They retain the appearance of a child for hundreds of years, growing wiser and more bitter beneath their youthful skin, and can only return to the normal aging process by taking the place of another stolen child. The eldest of the hobgoblins is transformed by appearance into Henry Day, while the former Henry Day is renamed Aniday and takes his place amongst the changelings.

The tragedies of these two chief characters unfold in alternating, parallel chapters that span three decades. Aniday’s existence is both marked by wistfulness at being separated from the world he knew before and held back from the self-actualisation of growing to adulthood, and the hardship of the hobgoblin’s gritty subsistence. They must steal their clothes, live on plants, frogs, and insects, but above all remain hidden from humans. “If they catch you, they will think you a devil and lock you away,” a leader named Igel warns the group’s newest member. “Or worse, they will test to see if they are right by throwing you in a fire.” Meanwhile, Henry wrestles with clouded memories of his life several centuries ago, barely recalling a German piano teacher and the prodigy he had before the latter was abducted. Henry must assimilate himself into modern society, or become the object of suspicion; when he cannot hide his affinity and extraordinary talent for playing the piano, one the previous Henry never displayed, his father becomes suspicious indeed.

The novel is remarkable, however, because the changelings operate as a synecdoche for the story: the book itself is adult literature swaddled inside the husk of children’s myth. Though the topic is that of sprites, the themes are those of lost innocence and search for identity, of modern society’s subjugation of the magic of childhood itself. Comparisons to giants of children’s literature, such as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, and adult-children’s literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, are well deserved; however, the book lacks the closure (I think I smell a sequel) that often makes these cross-genre adult/children’s books so satisfying, and is not appropriate for children so much as children stuck inside adults.

Read a review at The Guardian; read a very nice blog post by Ernesto Burden.

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