Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Stolen Child (book) by Keith Donohue

(This post was, for the most part, written well before my big move - I'm no longer part of a book discussion group, although I was when I wrote this post.)

This book follows two intertwined lives, alternating chapters written in the perspectives of the two people. The first chapter is from the perspective of a changeling, describing how he switched places with a 7-year-old child named Henry Day. As time passes, this impostor Henry tries his best to appear like any other human and not draw unwanted attention. He is able to fool many people, but not everyone, including Henry's father, really believes that he's who he appears to be. Settling into his new life, Henry demonstrates amazing skill as a pianist, and he becomes consumed with a desire to find out more about his former human self, the one from whom his musical skills come. When he is older, he eventually marries and has a child, but he can never quite erase the fear that changelings will come and take the life he has built for himself away.

The chapters written from the perspective of changeling Henry alternate with chapters written from the perspective of Aniday. When the changeling replaced Henry Day, the real Henry Day was taken into the woods and reborn as Aniday, a new changeling. Aniday tries to hold on to his past and the boy he once was, always longing to return to his family. The older changelings he lives with tell him that he can never go back to his own family - eventually, it will be his turn to find a child to replace, and then he'll get to go back to the world of humans again. Aniday gradually gets to know and care for many of the changelings, especially a female changeling named Speck. Although the changelings can't die of old age or diseases, tragedy still befalls the group, which rapidly grows smaller as certain members die or leave. Aniday has to figure out what to do about his budding feelings of love for Speck and his obsession with going home.

I don't think this is something I would normally have read, but my book discussion group chose it as the book for the month. I found the initial chapters fascinating and read them quickly, but it eventually got harder for me to stay interested. Part of my problem was that I loved Aniday's part of the book, but I didn't really like Henry's.

Aniday was a great character. I could understand his obsession with going home, and I was actually kind of surprised that he wasn't angry and resentful of the changelings who took him aways from his family. Even though he eventually wanted to leave, Aniday didn't keep himself distant from all the changelings. He got to know them all as much as they would let him - few of them ever wanted to talk about what their lives were like back when they were human - and he got as much joy out of his life as a changeling as he could. He connected the most with Speck and discovered his favorite place, the public library, with her help. His love for Speck felt genuine and allowed the reader to get to know her better than any other character besides Aniday or Henry.

Henry, on the other hand, was much more focused on himself, despite the fact that there were many more people in his life than there were in Aniday's. Although he loved several people, including his mother and his wife, as much as he was able, it didn't feel as though he was able to love very deeply. As a result, the reader never really got to know the people in Henry's life very well, other than as beings he either loved or didn't. While Speck stuck in my mind, Tess, Henry's wife, didn't, because Henry never really seemed to talk with her about important things. A big part of the problem was probably that Henry couldn't confide the most important secret in his life, his existence as a former changeling, to anybody. He couldn't tell his parents that he replaced their 7-year-old son, and he could never bring himself to tell Tess anything, which also meant that he couldn't tell her anything about looking into Gustav Ungerland (his former self) and his reasons for doing so. He, like Aniday, was bound by his past, but because he couldn't/didn't confide that past to anybody, his relationships were much more superficial than Aniday's.

I also wasn't entirely a fan of the book's fairly open ending. Donohue leaves it to the reader to decide if Aniday and Henry end up with lives that are happier and more satisfying than what they had had throughout the book. I like to assume that things go well for them both, and I think it's reasonable to think that things may go well for Aniday, but I was frustrated that Donohue took what I percieved as the easy way out when it came to Henry and his relationship with his family. After Henry falls in love with Tess, he constantly debates telling her about being a changeling, and the fact that he doesn't and is therefore forced to lie to her about some things or just not tell her things puts cracks in their marriage - Henry doesn't seem to really notice the cracks, but Aniday did, and so did I. Will Henry ever tell Tess about himself, or will he keep a large part of himself a secret from her for the rest of their lives? I don't know, and I can't help but feel that it was a bit wimpy of Donohue not to settle that issue.

Read-alikes:
  • The Time Traveler's Wife (book) by Audrey Niffenegger - Claire sees Henry, the man she eventually falls in love with and marries, many times throughout her lifetime, beginning when she's 6-years-old, but he doesn't actually meet her for the first time until he's 28. This is because Henry has a condition that causes him to travel backwards and forwards in time. The book alternates between Claire and Henry's points of view and chronicles the development of their relationship over the years. Those who'd like another work of literary fiction (this book is not exactly science fiction, in the same way that The Stolen Child is not exactly fantasy), by an author with a similar writing style, might want to try this.
  • The Confessions of Max Tivolli (book) by Andrew Sean Greer - When Max Tivolli is born in 1871, he looks like a tiny 70-year-old man. His mind is that of an infant, while his body is that of an old man. As the years pass, Max ages mentally, while his body becomes younger. His mother's advice is to "be what they think you are," and he does his best to follow it. However, how is he supposed to deal with love and friendship when he becomes physically younger as those around him grow older? Those who'd like another work of literary fiction (science fiction-y, but not what most science fiction readers would consider sci-fi) might want to try this.
  • The Thirteenth Tale (book) by Diane Setterfield - Vida Winters is a reclusive author who has always told journalists different versions of her life story, each time swearing that what she says is true. Now that her life is coming to an end, she agrees to tell young, unworldly Margaret Lea the true story of her life. It's up to Margaret to figure out what is fact and what is fiction. Those who'd like more literary fiction that deals with characters' identities/pasts might want to try this.

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