REVIEW: Victor LaValle's 'The Changling' is a Magical Novel of Family Woes

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The Changeling

By Victor LaValle

Spiegel & Grau 448 pp.

By Kimberly Fain

Victor LaValle, the acclaimed, genre-bending author of The Big Machine, The Ballad of Black Tom and Destroyer, is out with a magical new novel, The Changeling – a tale of spousal love and family secrets. The Changeling is also a transformative odyssey, in which LaValle reveals, with unexpected deadpan humor, his characters’ hopes and fears as they try to piece their broken lives back together again.

The Changeling’s Emma and Apollo Kagwa are the loving parents of a newborn baby boy named Brian, all of whom inhabit an eerie version of New York City. Apollo, a book dealer, is sure his son's constant presence on his rare book hunts proves that he's a devoted parent. Considering that Apollo's father, Brian West, abandoned him and his mother, Lillian, when he was a child, he seems like a better man than his father.

But early on, the reader is unsure whether Apollo's father left willingly or was forced to go. Visions of Apollo's absentee father plague him into adulthood. In one nightmare, a mysterious mist oozes from his father's mouth. Clouds of smoke fill the room as his father picks Apollo up above the rising water. Although we’re haunted by this otherworldly encounter, LaValle has no plans to reveal any hidden secrets – or at least not yet. When Apollo wakes up, he remembers he’s no longer a child. He’s a family man now. The night haunts build the narrative tension until eventually they explode into a sudden horror few couples could come back from.

Emma, Apollo's seemingly perfect wife, grows more complex with each turn of the page. A beautiful, hardworking librarian, Emma loves international travel, and spent time living in Brazil. But as a new mother, Emma executes her new role with rote-like precision. Emotionally, she’s a shell of her former, free spirited-self. Misled by her eroded memory and by some damaging childhood lies perpetrated by her older sister, Kim, Emma’s carefully managed life is about to crumble.

When Emma's eyes grow haunted, a look reminiscent of her mentally ill mother, the reader must wonder what LaValle has in store for this appealing young family. Is Emma capable of the sort of horror perpetrated by her own mother years earlier? Or, in the face of tragedy, does she have the strength her sister Kim displayed, to fight for the survival of her family? LaValle’s story, it turns out, is headed in an even darker direction. Emma’s behavior becomes ever more odd, and dangerous, as she attempts to squelch evil spirits. Some readers will be stunned by the subsequent violence.

As The Changeling’s mystery unfolds, the sudden volatility unsettles our fragile emotions. Perhaps no one is who we think they are. Does evil really live amongst us – and so close at hand? And if we find out the dreaded truth, what lengths are we willing to go to expel that danger unseen? With each page, LaValle pulls his audience deeper into a darkening, troll-infested forest of his own creation. As an adept surveyor of the human spirit, LaValle knows what we fear, why it sends us over the edge, and precisely how to take us there.


Kimberly Fain is an attorney, and teaches African American literature at Texas Southern University. She has two published books: Colson Whitehead: The Postracial Voice of Contemporary Literature and Black Hollywood: From Butlers to Superheroes, the Changing Role of African American Men in the Movies. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyFain