The Stolen Child may be set on a fairy-filled Irish island, but it is “Magical realism of the best kind, utterly devoid of whimsy,” according to Kirkus’ starred review.
“My friends loved that quote, ‘utterly devoid of whimsy,’ ” says author Lisa Carey, who was recently abroad in Turkey, where we reached her by phone. “They said that should be my calling card now. I’m honored—it’s one of my favorite lines about the book so far. When you’re writing about magic, your fear is that it’s going to become silly.”
Carey (In the Country of the Young, Every Visible Thing, etc.) grew up in an Irish-American family in Brookline, Massachusetts. She began making frequent trips to her ancestral homeland after college and credits the culture with helping her strike the right balance between magic and realism.
“Irish fairies helped me not to be too whimsical,” she says. “If you grew up hearing fairy stories in America, they’re light-filled Disney characters. They make the flowers bloom and bring you joy. Fairies in Ireland are not sweet smiling beings. They’re dangerous, dark, murderous, vengeful, and powerful, but also really intoxicating beings that draw people down into the orgy of their dancing.”
The Stolen Child is a fierce and enchanting story of the denizens (human and otherwise) of St. Brigid’s Island, a fictional land off the coast of Connemara. It is perilously remote, lacking in modern conveniences and a safe harbor in hard weather.
“It was the whim of the wind and the swelling sea that determined who landed there and who was let go,” Carey writes in The Stolen Child. “The islanders were apt to say that it was not the weather at all that decided such things. Something else, they believed, turned the world to suit itself.”
Set in May 1960, the book’s prologue depicts the women and children of St. Brigid being evacuated by boat, relocating to a council housing community on the mainland. A newspaper photograph of two sisters illustrates the exodus: Rose, the beautiful one, perpetually pregnant with twins, wears a somber countenance befitting the occasion. But Emer, Carey’s dour anti-hero, looks downright radiant for the first time in her public life. The discontented mother of but one six-year-old son, she is locally known for sucking the joy out of any room she enters.
“Every person on the island, except Rose and Niall, stays away from Emer’s hands,” she writes. “Even strangers can sense something in her, beyond the scowl and the plainness, that makes them shy away. As if standing too close to Emer is like choosing to grasp the hand of a fairy and be pulled into the dark, boggy, merciless ground.”
They say Emer herself was pulled into the underworld by fairies (the “good people”) an encounter than cost her an eye and marked her in other unseen ways. Her boy, with his strange fiery eyes, seems half-fairy himself. Fearing they’ll return to reclaim Niall, she obsessively dotes on him.
“I think of Emer as my worst self—my lowest points, when I was feeling the angriest and the most resentful—those moments in your life when you act unforgivably,” Carey says. “Emer is that shameful part [writ large], and I feel so much love and compassion for her. I thought people would find her kind of unforgivable, but so far the readers I’ve had—mostly women—identify.”
The narrative immediately shifts one year earlier, May 1959, to the anomalous arrival of an American woman who catalyzes great change. Brigid, the descendent of islanders, has a sort of magic about her: where Emer’s touch breeds contempt, Brigid’s hands heal. The one miracle she’s been unable to manifest—at age 40, husbandless—is a child of her own.
“More than any of them, a baby would be the closest Brigid could come to love,” Carey writes. “She imagined it like stealing, more of an abduction than a creation, but once you’d gotten the baby, there was no chance of another world taking it back. Not if you held on tight enough.”
Ultimately, The Stolen Child concentrates on the distance mothers will go to procure or protect their broods. While Brigid searches for the miracle that will make her a mother, she extends herself to Emer in a surprising way that scandalizes their community.
“The way I think of my life in writing is that different books embody stages in my life,” Carey says. “[The Stolen Child] is my book on parenting a young child, combining the light of motherhood with the dark themes that have always been a part of my writing. The first five years are a very beautiful and also dark place.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.