Do you remember the old folk’s tales of goblins coming out at night and switching babies with clay dolls and taking the real kids with them? The old wive’s tales would give advice on how to prevent this from happening, how to tell if the baby you are seeing is really yours or not or whether it has been changed with a cruel replacement. I’ve read a book a few years ago called The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood and that attacked the same genre from the perspective of a gothic novel set in the 1900’s. Enter Victor LaValle who in the era of Facebook posts containing baby shots and kitten videos, decided to re-introduce a new spin on the old classic folk tale, this time with a protagonist who is willing to fight back.
The book follows Apollo Kagwa, a rare-book dealer, happily married man, and wet-behind-the-ears dad who is trying to figure out how to be a father even though he didn’t have one of his own. His dad disappeared inexplicably when he was a child, and apart from a box of his old man’s mementos that showed up one day, he stayed gone.
“This was my breadcrumb trail. I wanted the reader, on some level, as unsure and off-balance as Apollo,” LaValle says.
Apollo and wife Emma’s new baby is named after the missing man – Brian – but the baby’s fate may be no better. The new family is shattered by a nightmarish crime early in the book, and Apollo goes on a quest throughout the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan in search of answers.
The tale of the ‘changeling’ has existed in various cultures across the globe since the dawn of time. In all of its iterations, a human infant is snatched away and replaced with a supernatural being or even an inanimate object left to be raised by the human parents, much like a cuckoo. Victor LaValle gives this millennia-old folktale a modern spin, creating a contemporary fairy tale set in urban New York and today’s digital era that is bound to make every parent’s skin crawl.
Apollo and Emma Kagwa meet, fall in love, marry and have a baby—all of it as if they were in a fairy tale. Having been abandoned as a child by his father, Apollo showers his son with affection, takes him everywhere and posts relentless bursts of identical baby pictures on Facebook, much to the consternation of his friends (“You used to have outside interests, man”).
“The people who raised us are often just human beings trying their best. That’s not a young person’s understanding, necessarily. It’s not something I understood when I was young,” LaValle says. “I was just angry at my father. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s and really thought things through, and had a kid by that point, I could see that all these things I dismissed as complete failures of character, I could see small versions of them in myself, whether it was impatience or the desire to escape.”
— Victor LaValle
In the book, Emma soon notices that once in a while, there is that odd picture that shows both Apollo and the baby at some distance, which poses a most obvious question—if it weren’t Apollo, who was it that made the picture!? As time goes by, Emma withdraws more and more into herself, growing hostile to both the baby and Apollo. And before Apollo realizes what is happening, he wakes up tied to a chair, as his wife scalds to death their son with boiling water muttering “It’s not a baby” and then vanishes without a trace. I got to admit the shift in the tone of the novel at this point caught me by surprise. The loving mother – a murderer? Capable of doing unspeakable things to her baby? Maybe she was suffering from PPD. Maybe it was like in that book The Little House by Phillipa Gregory where the mother is approaching the limits of her caring and is turning evil?
This is nothing but the beginning of a horrifying roller-coaster ride across all the boroughs of New York as well as the entire spectrum of human emotions, from inhuman rage to despair, astonishment and, finally, a flicker of hope, as Apollo searches for both his runaway wife and answers for her horrific actions while at the same time dealing with the truth about who his father was and why he left them.
I could really sympathize with Apollo’s mother as she tries singlehandedly to raise her child on a secretary’s income with male attention throughout.
“I tried to be nice about saying no to Charles, but some men, you can’t be nice to them. If you’re polite, they think it means you’re undecided. They hear your tone and ignore your words. It makes life a lot harder for the woman, but I don’t think a man like that notices.
The narrative is electrifying, scary and poetic in equal parts, the novel a masterpiece that seems to belong to a peculiar, ‘urban’ brand of magical realism, but with so many Gothic, fantasy and fairy tale elements as to be truly genre-defying. New York’s urban landscape is indispensable as a canvas to the very fabric of the novel, digital technology a crucial tool in both monstrous acts and the quest for truth, while LaValle’s immense storytelling talent can make even a run-down tenement building in upper Manhattan look like a bewitched village of times of yore.
Ultimately, the real monster is somewhat underwhelming, but this is hardly a cause of complaint. As usual, the most ordinary people are much, much scarier than any monster, real or imaginary, and in tune with the times, Internet trolls end up being so much viler and more abhorrent than actual ones. The book is a relentless page-turner, and reading it can make you really think what you should share about yourself, what you should post on social media and who may be actually be peaking at you from the camera of your own computer!?
“And you, I know you. One of these special new fathers. You’re going to document every moment, every breath of your child’s life. You take videos of them while they’re sleeping and slap them on the computer before the baby wakes up. You think you’re being so loving. You’ll be a better father than the one who raised you! Or the one who was never there at all. But let me tell you what I see instead. The neediness of it. The begging to be applauded. As if the praise of a thousand strangers would ever make up for the fact that you didn’t feel loved enough as a child. Oh, you poor thing. You were begging to be devoured. Maybe it’s you your child needed to be protected from. You leave a trail of breadcrumbs any wolf could follow, then act shocked when the wolf is outside your door. So concerned about being the perfect father, you don’t even notice your child has been snatched away! Replaced in the night by the offspring of a troll, a changeling whose beauty is only a projection of your own vanity.”
I think the book tried to be both a gothic horror as well as a moralizing story about the dangers of sharing your intimate details online and about cyber security. New parents are too in love with their new offspring to properly handle malicious people looking for a way to hurt them. In the end, the novel failed for me. It doesn’t explain the eerie glow around Apollo’s wife or why the old man had to feed her. It half-explains a new breed of monster the size of IT and the fact that some legends are real. It doesn’t explain how the child was still alive and no-one else noticed the puppet when embalming it… Meh.