A Review of The Changeling by Victor Lavalle
What happens when a good writer explores the building blocks of a family; a man, his wife, and how a child is first conceived in mind and then by an act of intense physical intimacy is given form and substance in this tension building narrative. At the heart of the narrative, the reader begins to sense the introduction of a really evil magic.
Lavalle is not a johnny-come-lately writer. He has written quite a few good books and has a large following. What drew me into the sphere of Lavalle’s writing was the incredible disparity among the reviews of the average reader on Amazon.com. Amazon’s readership was almost equally divided between “Excellent” and “Horrid.” The style of writing does not change. The writing is lyrical almost beautiful in scope. You care about the main character, about his love of books, the love he has for his wife his child. It is compelling, honest, and forces the reader to confront feelings, emotions, and perceptions that cannot be real. Is there a good witch? Is there a bad witch? Is a modern midwife a nurse or Satan’s protégé? If your wife and child are burned to ashes in a fire started by your wife, can you bring them both back from hell, and what must you give to do it? How do you love the woman who has killed everything you love including herself, especially herself? In many respects, this would have been better treated like Dorothy in Oz so the reader could feel the distinct click that tells you we now suspend reality because the Munchkins are dancing around us, but we will soon return to Kansas and everything will be wonderful.
Lavalle gives you none of that. His style, his love of the beauty of words never changes nor is the horror blatant. It is simply there, in your face, and as you read your own perceptions begin to change. You become immersed in a quest not only to restore your child but to destroy the one who has taken him from you. For Lavalle, the great equalizer, what gives a person the ability to breathe life into a cursed child, to capture a life that once was, is love. There is no complexity. Some readers will call it God, but God is too complex for this. This is human, real human love between father and child. The sex of the child is trivial, it is father attached to a child; totally unidirectional and absolute.
Lavalle’s style of writing is unusually straightforward, direct, and in your face. He writes with the rapier thrust and parry style of Hemingway, but there are certain paragraphs in the book that have the lilting melodies of Thomas Wolfe describing a banquet; so poignant they almost bring you to tears. Lavalle is a connoisseur of words and books. His main character is a book dealer who searches estate sales and back alley old and dying shops for that rare ever elusive volume that will bring him both wealth and recognition. He has a minor success and sells his valuable book, to whom, if not the devil, is certainly an emissary and so begins a really frightening journey for both him and the reader. The reader can only feel a sense of the disquiet, he cannot truly grasp the gaping, maw of hell, particularly as it is so cleverly disguised.
Some reviewers have equated the writings of Lavalle with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, to whit, “The Raven”, but Poe is absolutely not subtle. The raven would happily sit on your shoulder and pick out your eye. Lavalle is more like Arthur Rimbaud. In short, you think you smell a rose, but it is the euphoria of black tar opium.
It is almost as if Lavale has decided to rewrite Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in the twenty-first century. The story of such a genuinely poisonous woman has never been better written than this.
Reading The Changeling is an experience to be savored as an exploration of avenues within your soul you know exist, but they are to be approached with a sense of trepidation and wonderment. It is a fairy tale not for children.