The Stolen Child: A Novel
by Keith Donohue
A review by Graham Joyce
Our literary culture is marinated in deep traditions of the fantastic and the
supernatural, and we export those rich qualities in films and books on a spectacular
industrial scale. It's unfortunate, then, that our sniffy literary establishment
should furrow its brow at any and all prospecting around these fictional sources.
Quite often important books are marginalized by obtuse prejudice, and I hope this
will not be the fate of Keith Donohue's utterly absorbing The Stolen Child.
the 1950s, and a 7-year-old boy is abducted by fey creatures from the woods who
replace him with a changeling. The story is offered in a double narrative, from
the viewpoints of both the abducted child and the changeling. The boy is inducted
into the ways of the fey, who seem to dislike the word fairy in favor of
hobgoblin . Indeed, these fey-folk are of the unsweetened variety: Some
are casually libidinous, and all of them are delightfully grungy.
the changeling recounts the task of passing himself off as the abducted boy. Everyone
accepts him except the father, who seriously doubts his paternity. Already you
begin to see the humane layering in this highly evolved story. And yet the metaphors
and the allusions, coming thick and fast, never become mere allegory, nor do they
threaten or overburden Donohue's commitment to the supernatural subject matter.
It's an impressive double act, a fine example of what the French call the fantastique
-- an intrusion into realism, a leak from the supernatural world into this one.
story involves either the difficulty of remembering or the impossibility of forgetting,
the yearning for a lost life or the guilt associated with a past one. This novel
permits many different readings. Perhaps at bottom there really is only one protagonist,
a fractured psyche that craves integration. One narrative represents the difficulty
of negotiating the social world, while the other life stands for the wild woods
of the untamed imagination. Or maybe the boy and the changeling represent the
guilt of a suburban conformist feeling the call of the wild.
it might be just about fairies. Beautiful.
One thing that the novel certainly
is is a paean to the healing powers of art. It is through artistic endeavor that
these two characters seek to address the disjunctions and unhappiness of their
lives. The abducted boy craves paper and writing implements to record his experiences
and to remember his old life. The changeling is a gifted pianist possessing a
talent that reminds him that he, too, was once abducted by the band of the fey.
The chains to the past are long.
Inspired by W.B. Yeats's poem about the
legend of the changelings, The Stolen Child owes a further debt to J.M.
Pan, another fairy story that was not about fairies at all but about the loss
of imagination and about growing up. Oddly, the last novel that grabbed me in
this way was Donna Tartt's The
Secret History. The surface interests may seem different, but her evocation
of college life was no closer to realism than is Donohue's fairy world. Both novels
are rites-of-passage tales, and both are about the loss of identity. As in Tartt's
novel, narrative here trumps characterization, but maybe that's the cost of achieving
the mythic resonance and almost timeless quality of such works.
On the surface,
Donohue may seem to have written a clever debut novel about fairies. But the real
triumph of the book is that, while our backs were turned, he has performed a switch
and delivered a luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity.
Joyce's most recent novel is The
Limits of Enchantment.
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