Book Reviews, Current Events, Literary Apologetics, Popular Books

“The Changeling” by Victor LaValle – Seeing the Humanity in the Other… or not

I don’t think it is a secret to say that I love books. Part of loving books as much as I do means joining book clubs, and places like Goodreads allow for networking about books around the globe. I am somewhat active in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club on Goodreads, and in August, we read The Changeling by Victor LaValle. I found it to be deeply moving, at times disturbing, and, on reflection, ingenious. LaValle seems particularly interested in the notion of seeing humanity in those we consider “other.” There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

The Changeling

Amal El-Mohtar at NPR had an intriguing post on the book as well, which gives a summary, with a caveat:

Here is more or less what most synopses I’ve seen of The Changeling say: Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and new father, in love with his wife, Emma, and their infant son Brian, named after the vanished father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an unspeakable act of violence and disappears, Apollo’s left grasping at the threads of his unravelled life, following them through a labyrinth of strange characters, mysterious islands and haunted forests, all occupying the same space as the five boroughs of New York City.

This is accurate — but the experience of reading the book is something else. The storytelling gets compressed and decompressed at various points like the air in a bellows, stoking the fire under the story, burning away its disguises and sending it shrieking up the chimney.

When I finished reading the book, I initially thought it was a bit odd. Like El-Mohtar, I could summarize the book, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt the various threads in the plot needed to be stripped away and removed, so that I could see what was underneath. What his plot summary leaves out is that Emma is ultimately found vindicated because their son was replaced with a changeling by a man whose family has been working to steal children to feed to a troll for an extraordinary length of time. But all of this is tied, in a way, back into a discussion of racism. The main characters are almost all people of color, while the two characters who work to feed the trolls the children of people of color are white.

As I thought about the plot of the book, I realized that it could be a kind of metaphor for talking about race relations in the United States. The idea of whites taking away black children to give to a “troll” is a poignant way to think about slavery. The heartless attitude of those who take the children away is also similar to the comments made about various “political” issues like immigration or shootings.

I asked the author on Twitter a bit about the interpretation of the book. He replied that the idea of seeing it as a commentary on race relations was on track, but also that one of the white characters had the motivation that he simply couldn’t imagine a correspondence between how much he loved the children and how much their own parents did. There’s a kind of disconnect in understanding the “other” that leads to heinous acts. It is this disconnect that is perhaps most alarming and heart-rending in the book. LaValle draws readers in with a truly beautiful story of falling in love, loving books (I have to admit the used book seller aspect of the plot gave me much joy) and then hammers home a point about the brutality of our world so suddenly that it shocks the reader.

Sin has that same effect. It breaks into a peaceful picture, most violently when we see it in Genesis 3. Into God’s very good creation comes sin, and it changes everything. The serpent offers a substitute–a changeling–for reality, pushing a vision of the future to Adam and Eve that they accept instead of trusting God. Racism is sinful, and LaValle’s work highlights the intensity of violence and the person-destroying nature of that sin.

Near the end of the book, there is this brief aside at the end of Chapter 102:

Apollo lingered. He approached the stones, skirting around until he found the largest one, what had been the troll’s head. He could still make out the soft depression of those great blind eyes. He brushed each one with a finger. He leaned close to the stone and pressed his forehead to it. He felt as if he was finally burying what had been haunting him since he was a child. A funeral not for his father but his fatherlessness. Let that monster rest.

A funeral for his fatherlessness. I was deeply moved by this line and have been thinking about it ever since. I don’t really know how or why it made me think so much about it, but it has stuck with me. Just another aspect of a book that forces its readers to reflect.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle is a moving, disturbing work. I recommend it highly, and would love to discuss it with you.


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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