Thursday, October 12, 2006

Books: The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

The Stolen Child
by Keith Donohue

Dollar Store Plot: One summer day after an argument with his mother, young Henry Day decides to run away from home. As he hides from rescue searchers in the hollow of an old tree in the woods behind his house, Henry is kidnapped by a band of hobgoblin changelings, who have been spying on Henry for weeks and waiting for the opportunity to exchange him for one of their own. Henry, renamed Aniday after his initiation into the hobgoblins, quickly begins to forget the details of his former life and becomes subsumed in the culture of the hobgoblins. Meanwhile, instead of relishing his return to humanity, the changeling left in Henry'’s place finds himself constantly fearful of being discovered as an imposter and struggling to remember how to be human.

First off, know that this is not your typical fantasy fare. Keith Donohue weaves together fantasy and reality so seamlessly that I guarantee you'll be peering nervously into the foliage next time you pass through a patch of wilderness. The lives of both Aniday as the child-turned-hobgoblin and Henry as the hobgoblin-turned-child reflect emotions, thoughts, and events that are universal human experiences. Central to this novel are questions of identity, rites of passage, and ultimately, the realization that however much you labor to reclaim what has been lost, in the end, you can only accept and move on.

I see this novel as part of an emerging trend in fiction; for lack of an "official"’ label, I"’ll call it fantastical reality. Very different from either traditional sci-fi/fantasy or the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, this new genre reads very much like reality-oriented modern fiction...except with a twist. Instead of having a skin of magic overlaid on the fictional reality, wherein anything and everything is possible, the magic in this new genre is very specific, isolated, and is kept secret for fear of discovery. In The Stolen Child, hobgoblins exist. Nothing more. In The Time Traveler'’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, one character can time travel. That'’s all. The magic has very defined boundaries and limitations. No other kinds of magic are even hinted at or enter into conversation. (Though as the reader you might wonder what other kinds of incredible things might be true in a world where hobgoblins read Shakespeare in library crawlspaces!)

Another difference between this new genre and both sci-fi/fantasy and magical realism is the perceived "‘ordinariness"’ of the magic with respect to the fictional world in the novel. In sci-fi/fantasy and magical realism, the magic is largely perceived as normal and ordinary. As a plot device, the magic might be hidden from other characters or part of a fictional sub-culture, but the reader understands that magic is as natural to the world as air or water. In fantastical reality, the magic is an aberration. It's secret, often tinged with darkness and danger, and the characters who experience it are very much alone.

The magic is also not usually the true focus of the book. It's an additional factor, it'’s interesting to explore, it'’s perhaps a plot device; but the true meaning and message the author is crafting lies elsewhere. The Stolen Child is not a book about hobgoblins living in suburban woods. It's a book about core identity, what defines us as humans and individuals, and how we perceive the world around us. In this sense, fantastical reality is more akin to magical realism, where the magic often represents a key metaphor or central idea.

Ok, some specifics about The Stolen Child: This is Donohue'’s first novel and definitely had a slightly over-articulated "‘first novel"’ feel to it, as if Donohue got this brilliant idea and has been BURNING to turn it into a novel for some time. The plot is meticulously developed with no gaping holes or leaps of logic, although the pace does stutter quite a bit with long spans of inaction punctuated by moments of frenetic activity. I think this is typical problem of new writers who aren'’t yet confident in their story-telling abilities and have trouble stepping back from their attachment to individual scenes to see the book as a whole. Donohue does a brilliant job of crafting his characters and creating realistic dialogue. In particular, the poetic and lyric language of the hobgoblins comes off as completely believable--a very difficult feat in a modern book such as this. Here are two examples of this kind of language (in both examples, older hobgoblins are speaking to the new Aniday about the life of a hobgoblin): "“Are you thinking of our friends, late and lamented? They'’re better off where they are and not suffering this eternal waiting. Or is there something else on your mind, little treasure?"” (p. 237), and "“A raspberry is a raspberry. The blackbird is a metaphor for nothing. Words signify what you will"” (p. 252).

With a first novel as vibrant and fulfilling as this one, I'm very eager to see what Donohue does next.

If you liked this book or if the whole "‘fantastical reality"’ idea intrigues you, check out The Time Traveler'’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I don'’t know if two books truly qualifies as an "emerging genre," but I'’ve got a feeling about this one, I tell you. I'll keep y'all posted if (nay, WHEN!) I come across more books of this type.


faith` said...

Hey EmmaC - just stumbled over here from the Kitchen and had to comment. I just read this book and found it very beautiful and very sad. It had this melancholy undertone to it that seemed to also be a subtext commenting on the vanishing wilderness of America. The children are bound to the wild places and as they vanish their life vanishes too.

I like your review a lot - I think you're right on the new writer stumbles, too. I found the strictly alternating POV chapters a little frustrating; the structure seemed to stall the momentum in several places.

I read The Time Traveler's Wife too and again found it wonderful and so sad! It's like this magic can't impinge on real life without tragedy of some sort. One other recent book that fits into this genre is "A Brief History of the Dead" - not magic, per se, but definitely a sort of lyric scifi/mysticism. Again, beautiful and sad. I don't know if you go for straight fantasy at all but the best book I've read lately is The Witch's Boy - a sort of fairy tale, parable, coming of age story. I stayed up late to finish that one...

EmmaC said...

Hi, Faith! Thanks for stopping in!

"A Brief History of the Dead" was recommended to me a while ago, but I had completely forgotten about it until now. Might have to run out and see if I can find a copy to read over the weekend...

And I LOVE any book that someone recommends with the phrase "I stayed up late to finish it." Thanks for the suggestion!