Book Review: The Changeling


The Changeling
by Victor LaValle
431 pages
Published June 2017, by Spiegel and Grau


Apollo Kagwa has had a good life. Though his white father left when he was a child, his mother Lilian, a Ugandan immigrant, is determined to give her bookworm son a good life that’s filled with books. Apollo skips college and goes straight into a career that he loves– selling used and rare books. It doesn’t pay well, but he makes it by and when he meets Emma, it seems like his life is complete. He is happy, Emma is happy, and when their first child, Brian, arrives, life is perfect. But cracks begin to appear in their happy life, and then one day Emma and Brian are gone. Determined to find answers to the mysteries of his life, Apollo sets out on a journey that takes him to places that are stranger and more frightening than he could have imagined.

“When you have to save the one you love, you will become someone else, something else. You will transform. The only real magic is the things we’ll do for the ones we love.”
The most unsettling narratives are not the ones that make themselves known with a splash or a spattering of gore up front. They creep up behind us, making the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up and put us on alert for the unknown thing lurking in the shadows. Or on the other end of the phone.
The Changeling begins in a mundane fashion. It opens with two people meeting, dating, and getting married and having a child. Then the father disappears and the boy grows up with his single mother. He, Apollo, has few memories of his father, but carries a story of his childhood and a recurring nightmare that vanishes in time, then reappears after the birth of his own son, Brian.
It’s after Brian’s birth that things start to turn strange, little events that build upon each other bit by bit, turning the world sidewards and slinking into impossibility. But because this build-up is so slow and careful, the growing improbability doesn’t seem so improbable in the grand scheme of things. This is due in part to the relationships Apollo maintains. Relationships with other Black people, among them his mother, Lillian, and his best friend Patrice. LaValle works with strange stories, but he doesn’t completely abandon reality for the sake of the unreal. As strange as Apollo’s world has become, he is still a Black man in New York City who worries about the police and the prejudices of clients he works with as a rare book dealer. The everyday racism Apollo faces is as insidious a threat at the magical ones he comes across during his search for Emma.
From page one, The Changeling is a gripping story that twists and turns from the real to the unreal, from the personal to the universal and back again. It is a story about stories– the truths we ignore, and the comforting tales we tell ourselves to shape our sense of self. We’re always the hero of our own stories. Even the worst characters of The Changeling think of themselves as strong, upright people willing to do what they must to ensure order in the world. The Changeling forces us to look twice at these self-told legends– our dreams, the improbable remnants of memories, the lives we construct on social media– and ask ourselves if they represent the truth, or if we’re living a life that rests upon comfortable fictions.

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