Victor LaValle is a genre genius: The Changeling (June 13) satisfies as a horror story, a fairy tale, and a contemporary New York narrative all in one.
“I’ve been working with the same editor now for about four books,” LaValle says of Chris Jackson, publisher and editor-in-chief of Random House imprint One World, “so when I give him 100 pages of the next book, he knows it’s going to be such a variety of ingredients that it’s going to taste terrible—at first. His job is to say, ‘You don’t need more than eight of these 20 ingredients, and that’ll already be a very complex meal.’ ”
The Changeling’s incongruous openings marries an outer borough sensibility to a traditional storytelling structure.
“This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike,” LaValle writes. “In February New York City’s sanitation workers refused to pick up trash for eight days straight. One hundred thousand tons of garbage filled the sidewalks, spilled into the streets. Rats ran laps alongside morning joggers. Rubbish fires boiled the air. The five boroughs had been given up for dead. Still, there was some cracked magic in the air because that was when Lillian and Brian met. Each had journeyed form far-flung lands to find one another in Queens. Neither could’ve guessed the wildness that falling in love would unleash.”
Lillian and Brian’s brief union produces a son named Apollo Kagwa. At age 34, he falls in love with Emma Valentine, a librarian at the Fort Washington branch of the New York Public Library. Their lives are steeped in stories (he’s a rare book dealer, hunting through estate sales and book boxes in outer borough basements) and they soon have one of their own to tell: their son, Brian, is born unexpectedly, underground on a stopped subway train.
In the first months of Brian’s life, Apollo’s love for his son only grows. But Emma, as if bewitched, finds her joy in parenthood eroding. A shocking event leads to her disappearance and sends Apollo scrambling to save their family from modern monsters, witches, and trolls.
“No fairy tale begins in 1968,” acknowledges LaValle, who Kirkus reached by phone as he walked down a Manhattan street (a conversation complete with obligatory pause for passing ambulance). “But a [modern] story can still have the timelessness of a fairy tale with concrete cultural signifiers. What makes it timeless is that people have been wondering, ‘How do we keep our kids safe?’ since time immemorial. People have been wondering, ‘How do we keep love in a marriage?’since time immemorial.”
LaValle is the author of several magical, multifarious books (Big Machine, 2009, etc.) that have garnered him a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors. He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in Washington Heights with his wife, novelist Emily Raboteau, and their children.
“Having had the two kids...I was really interested in the ways that all the rational understanding of that experience is in no way training for the experience,” says LaValle, who found ample inspiration for The Changeling in family life. “If you really want to capture the feeling of [parenthood], there’s a point where you almost have to essentially lift off into another realm, because just relating the facts in no way makes you understand.
“The heart of magical realism is essentially that—I have to have people with wings, who fly, or else you will not understand what it’s like for people to be disappeared,” he says.
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked. The Changeling received a starred review in the April 1, 2017, issue.