Phew! It took me a while to gather my thoughts on this stunning, elusive piece of a novel. For a time, I even abandoned the idea of reviewing it. But the thought of it came at me again, and here I am, trying my best to render the otherworldly splendor of it.
I did not know anything about Joy Williams before stumbling upon this 70th anniversary edition of the Changeling from Tin House. The gorgeous cover and intriguing blurb got me in. And the brilliance of Williams’ prose kept me enthralled.
The novel centers around Pearl, a young mother. We meet her in a bar, where she drinks, her infant son in the arms. She has fled from her authoritarian, potentially abusive husband Walker, whose strange family she fears. The family lives on an island, with the many orphans, abandoned or biological children they have “collected”, and under the control of Thomas, Walker’s older brother. Pearl is worried of the influence he might have on her son’s development, with his quite original views on children’s education. She thinks this man crushes children’s souls and she does not want her son “to be influenced by a man who [can] snap a child’s mind as though it [is] a twig”. But soon, Walker debarks and she finds herself on her way back to her island prison again. An airplane crash brutally removes Walker from the picture, and she is left with a son she is persuaded is not hers anymore. She is now trapped on the island, and the novel follows her life there, among the many children and other creatures that populate the estate. Her maybe-son grows, quite estranged from her.
“Pearl returned to herself again though not as successfully as before. She shook her head dully. She sat up. She was twenty years old, her nipples were like the hard tight buds of a new tree. She had been married but now it seems she is not married. She does not have her pocket books. She does not have any identification.”
Pearl seems to be floating in the world, not sure where her place is, and seeing her environment through sharp yet dreamy eyes.
“She had tried so earnestly once to be sane. But sanity, it was like holding onto a balloon, a balloon of the world, fragile, and full of petty secrets and desires. She would let it go. It was easy to let it go.”
A mother that may suffer from post-partum depression or not, she is anxious, nervous and is somehow adverse to the world and people around her, as they seem aggressive, and duplicitous. Is Sam really still her son? Or has he been replaced by a Changeling, this folktale creature that is left in place of a human baby when the said baby is stolen by fairies? It may be that the plane crash took its toll on her. Incredulous that her son has miraculously survived after having been ejected from her arms, and shocked by the disappearance of his father, she may have trouble reconciling with reality. Or it may very well be that strange things are happening around her.
“Having knowledge without knowing, her thoughts far away, her body there, but in darkness, stroked by the whispers of summer. Her other self above. Coldly, cleanly empty of herself.”
In fact, there seems indeed to be terrible, unspeakable things happening on the island. It is not clear what Thomas gathers the children for, and what he does to them. And these children are too wild and sharp. Feral creatures (with a dog-child among them?) that appeal to Pearl while also repulsing her. They seem to love her and seek her company, probably because she may not have totally left childhood herself. And she cares for them, but on the other hand finds them insufferable, too noisy, agitated and ambiguous. Maybe too much of a responsibility as well. The otherworldly wisdom of her son terrorizes her the most. As the children see right through the faults of the duplicitous, perhaps dangerous adults around them, it is possible that in Pearl, ironically, they have found the only sane, reliable adult to cling too. Pearl, who is slowly subsiding to the deliquescence that has seized her mind and body.
“Children were quite disturbing, really. It was difficult to think about children for long. They were all fickle little nihilists and one was forever being forced to protect oneself from their murderousness.”
The whole atmosphere is unsettling. A sense of permanent and imminent dread permeates the mesmerizing writing. Because we follow the events through Pearl’s depression and alcohol-blurred eyes, it is difficult to determine what part of the strangeness comes from her surrounding and what is born inside her. We follow the stream of her consciousness as she observes the children play hide and seek, escape the suffocating presence of the adults, and try to connect with the dark past of the house. A tenebrous myth has spread its shadow over the land. The story of Aaron and his wife , Walker’s forefathers. Aaron used to be a merciless trapper, killing animals after animals, secluded from the outside, civilized world. Until one of his dying prey talked to him, in what sounded both like a curse and a warning. From then, Aaron left the wilderness and sought to “make his mark on civilization for a while, make some money, travel and learn”. He got himself a “witch” of a wife, who, after much waiting, gave him twelve children and who strangely connected with the wild fauna around.
“And there was a star, burning itself up, drifting and gone even before it made its presence manifest to human eyes. No longer supported by whatever cared to keep it in place. Like the plane seven years ago had fallen from the sky….”
The writing here is gorgeous, and despite its somehow occult quality, flows easily. It alternates prosaic observations with the most surrealistic, lyrical prose. Nothing feels forced, but each sentence is a dazzling diamond, full of the most original imagery. Besides the equivocal meaning of the novel, reading it is a living, sensual experience. The reader is immersed and carried on by the flow. The conclusion is shocking and unsettling, as ambiguous as the rest of the novel. We sense that horror has reached its acme, but how exactly? How many victims? Are we still roaming the realm of the living, or are we wandering among the spirits of the dead?
An hypnotising novel that opens a window to the world beyond the reality we know, questions the meaning and boundaries of motherhood, relates the irruption of the monstrous in the everyday life, tells of the painful transformation that growing up requires. Life seen as a perpetual metamorphosis, time as the inescapable race towards death.
“The secret society of childhood from which banishment was the beginning of death.”
The Changeling is like… the changing surface of the sea under the moonlit sky. The waves carry fragments of shifting light, revealing before veiling again, continuously metamorphosing before our eyes. It is inscrutable yet hypnotic. I will certainly revisit the novel again, to immerse myself in its dark, glittery waters and watch as the unsteady stream transforms endlessly.
Conclusion : Magistral, unsettling and breathtaking. Joy Williams is a queen. Read it if you like being swept away in dark and layered universes that don’t give their secrets away at once.