Behind the Curtain: Victor LaValle’s “The Changeling” & the Crossroads of Allegories

This is not a book review. If you’re looking for a simple good or bad, yes or no, star-rating of LaValle’s book, there’s no shortage; if you like dark fantasy and fairytale, you’ll probably enjoy it. This essay does include spoilers for the whole book. Trigger warnings are also in place for violent ableism, child murder, child abuse, anti-Black racism, and dehumanization.

Frankly, I adored this book. It’s beautifully written, funny at the strangest moments, dark, evocative…

… And yet.

And yet.

At the core of The Changeling is a murder. Apollo Kagwa, a rare book dealer, has his world torn apart when his wife Emma seemingly loses her mind and commits a terrible deed. She murders their infant son, Brian, and vanishes. It’s a cruel, terrible thing, and Apollo is driven to find her – whether to kill her or to question her, he isn’t sure.

The author of The Changeling, Victor LaValle, is Black, and so are his characters. So, immediately, this is a story about Black parenthood, not just American or ‘default’ parenthood, which is always White. Amal El-Mohtar comments in her review on how the novel spends time on the intricacies, joys and hardships of Black fatherhood. Notice the word there, ‘fatherhood’ – the book spends no time in Emma’s head, and El-Mohtar points out the same thing that I noticed. “…I kept imagining a shadow-book following my reading, the whole story from [Emma’s] point of view.”  This gets particularly notable as the reveal draws closer and it becomes apparent that Emma’s “insanity” was simply her crying out a truth that nobody else would hear; that her child had been replaced with something else. 

Like all the best fantasy novels, The Changeling is about more than just the trappings of fantasy – it’s about the institutionalization and gaslighting of Black mothers, the abduction of Black children, complete with white men sacrificing those children to maintain their power and superiority, while ignoring suffering simply because it belongs to Black children and not their own. It’s an intensely powerful message, delivered unflinchingly and without any kowtowing to respectability politics or white liberalism, and perhaps it suffers from not allowing the reader into Emma’s head – but perhaps it’s trying to say something with that, too.

And yet.

And yet, as an autistic person, the central metaphor and incident holds an entirely different significance to me. So much of the plot carries so much weight and significance that it doesn’t to an allistic or neurotypical person. I can’t let go of the image of a would-be “good mother” holding a kettle, about to brutally murder a baby for the crime of not being a Real Baby. It’s meant to be shocking within the text, absolutely; but as the story goes on and slowly absolves Emma, my heart remains with the unnamed changeling. Made of wood and bugs and enchantment; perhaps – but what if it’s not? Would allowing the reader Emma’s perspective improve this, or make it worse? How much harder would it be to sympathize with Emma if we saw the baby through her eyes and had to grapple with her dehumanizing a child? How many mothers, saddled with children they didn’t want or couldn’t make themselves love, fell back on claims that they weren’t real babies, that they wanted a real baby who did things the Right Way?

Consider, unfortunately: changeling myths often originated from ancient interpretations of neurodivergency. The “fae child” with the slow development of speech and thousand-yard-stare isn’t folklore fodder – it’s autism through a different set of eyes. This might seem irrelevant, but autistic children are still so frequently murdered by their caretakers that the intended horror of “That isn’t a baby” is lost in favour of an entirely opposite one.

If this had been one of those bog-standard urban fantasy novels with a white author and a white protagonist with a white girlfriend in a white city, with a conflict about saving the world, I probably wouldn’t have gotten past the murder. But if it had been a novel like that, it probably never would have introduced something so complicated in the first place. Even without this interpretation, it’s complicated. Is Emma Valentine an ableist murderer, or a brave and unbowed mother in search of the truth? Is she both? Can she be both? (I would end up saying no, but I’m a changeling with arms and legs of flesh and blood, not wood and vine.)

This is complicated by an anecdote within the novel. Apollo’s father, also named Brian, attempted to drown him at some point during his childhood, and Lillian murdered him for it. The parallels drawn between this and the case of Emma Valentine at first seem to indicate that Brian and Emma were doing the same thing, misguidedly and wrongfully; but Emma is exonerated and Brian never is. Once again, because we’re never given Emma’s perspective from inside her head, we don’t know if she and Brian had the same motivations, the same reasons – if perhaps, Lillian was wrong and mistaken, and Apollo is a changeling the whole time, or if the creature that Apollo later takes for a mimic of insects and wood was at some point a living and breathing thing, a victim of Emma’s cruelty.

Ultimately, the concept of kidnapped/replaced children is one with heavy baggage no matter where you go with it; Romani, Jewish, Indigenous, Latinx, Black, neurodivergent, disabled, transgender, and fat narratives around stolen children all carry a different weight, even before you get into the traumatic history of adoption and what “not my Real Child” can mean in that context. And then there’s the extra detail that Black and autistic narratives are not in opposition; Black autistic children exist and are underdiagnosed and ignored by both Black neurotypical adults and white autistic communities.

I don’t know if this book could have been written any other way, and ‘harmful’ isn’t the right word. Instead, it’s a particularly potent reminder that allegories can hold their own opposites within them for different eyes – empowering and belittling, harmful and representative, incisive and stereotypical. The changeling myth is not an apolitical fairytale for consumption and repackaging for any and every purpose, and LaValle makes an incredible allegory from it for one group, while neglecting to consider the impact upon another. I don’t know if it’s fair to ask any writer to consider every potential impact of an allegory, especially when Black stories are already so policed, and that’s one major reason I don’t consider this a review – but it’s something worth holding in mind when messing around with stories of the Other. The Other to you is life-as-normal for somebody else.

The Changeling is a book about fear, ultimately. But even without intending to, while it’s about the things that parents fear, it chronicles such a blinding brilliant example of why children fear their parents, too.

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