"Don't call me a fairy. We don't like to be called fairies any more. If you must give me a name, call me hobgoblin."
Keith Donohue's debut novel, The Stolen Child, boasts a cover quote from Audrey Niffenegger: and there's a translucency of prose, a sometimes deceptive plainness of language -- not to mention a literary approach -- that does remind me of The Time Traveller's Wife.
The novel begins with some erudite (and slightly offputting) notes on the natural history of the sublunary spirits -- but soon settles into the story. It's the tale of two boys: Henry Day, a.k.a. Aniday, who is stolen away by the fairies, and 'Henry Day', the changeling who takes his place. Which of them's the stolen child?
'Henry' has a role to play: accustomed to sleeping in burrows in the forest and to the company of the changeling gang, he has to pay attention to every detail in order to become Henry, to become himself. Meanwhile, Aniday has to adjust to life at the bottom of the changeling hierarchy, a rigidly FIFO system where the changeling who's been with the band for longest is the next to swap places with a human child. And that human child will, in turn, become a changeling, frozen at the age at which he or she was stolen. Aniday will remain seven years old -- the ultimate Lost Boy -- until his turn comes around. It could take years, or centuries.
As 'Henry' starts to discover whose life he's taken over, who he is, he also begins to wonder -- apparently for the first time, for the changelings don't talk about their human childhoods -- who he was. He even enlists the help of a barfly hypnotist, the con-artist McInness who's actually a former professor of folklore, specialising in 'the pre-psychology of parenting'. (I am, given the alternating first-person narratives, especially impressed with the way this is written). He has a love of and talent for music that the original Henry never displayed, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that his dual nature can find its clearest expression through music.
While 'Henry' is exploring his past and settling into the life he's stolen, Aniday is trying to make sense of his present life, hiding out in a den beneath the town library with his friend Speck and writing his life story on stolen notepads. Change is coming to the changelings, though: twentieth-century urbanisation is encroaching upon their forest home, and a failed abduction leads to disaster. Indeed, almost every meeting between changelings and humans seems to end in tragedy, though perhaps it doesn't have to be that way. There's a sense that the times they are a-changing: Henry is stolen away in the late 1950s, but by the end of the novel it's twenty years later. "Our kind are few, and no longer deemed necessary. Far greater troubles exist for children in the modern world," says Aniday rather wistfully.
Each Henry grows and lives, in a sense, as half a person. 'Henry Day' falls in love with and marries local girl Tess, but is neurotically protective of their child. 'Aniday' feels that only Speck truly understands him -- but doesn't understand her at all. How can he? He doesn't understand, or know, himself. And the two approach the world from very different perspectives -- as is superbly illustrated by the encounter below the library, the same scene seen through two pairs of eyes.
This is a novel about identity and how it's created: about growing up and leaving childhood behind. Speck tells Aniday sometimes it's better not to know who you really are. Tess asks 'Henry', "who are you? where are you?" And Ruth Day, Henry's mother, tells 'Henry' "I've known all along" -- though he never asks her what she means, what she knows.
'Henry' writes a symphony, 'The Stolen Child', about a child trapped in silence -- 'the inner life and the outer world in counterpoint' -- in which both child and changeling persist. The conflict over that symphony -- the tricks of the changelings, the transcendence of music that can bridge the gap between their worlds -- provides a conclusion which, though it's certainly not a happy ending, might be a hopeful beginning. The last line: "I am gone and am not coming back, but I remember everything."
My favourite line, though, has little to do with the plot and a great deal to do with something that I was thinking about when I read the novel. McInness's explanation for abandoning his academic career and turning to the life of the professional drinker: "It's the mind, boys. The relentless thinking machine. The incessant demands of tomorrow and the yesterdays piled up like a heap of corpses." That's it, that's it exactly.