The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

stolenchild.jpgOkay, I admit it. I sometimes pay attention to marketing and buzz. Not all the time mind you. There are plenty of books that take the world by storm and I have no interest in reading them. The Da Vinci Code? No thank you. The Left Behind series? Nope.

But when Amazon was all abuzz about The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue I was really curious. What grabbed their attention and made them want to promote the book to such a degree (they had Donohue interviewed on Amazon Fishbowl, sent out copies to their top 100 reviewers, posted extra material about the book and its back-story, etc.)? Combine this buzz with my interest in myths/fairy tales, and fiction that mixes the fantastic with the everyday, and I bumped the book to the top of my TBR list.

I am glad I did. The Stolen Child is an imaginative and evocative coming of age novel about memory and loss; and about how we come to terms with our past. It is a remarkable first novel from an author I hope we hear more from in the coming years.

Inspired by the Yeats’ 1886 poem The Stolen Child uses the changeling myth as a jumping off point. The A.V. Club review does a great job of setting up the plot:

Donohue’s book opens with a band of hobgoblins—fairies, but more like a grubby, feral pack of J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys than like the winged, taffeta-clothed Tinkerbells of popular imagining—capturing 7-year-old runaway Henry Day in the woods and sending one of their number home in his place, as a changeling. Given an unconventional baptism and rechristened Aniday, the stolen boy loses his memories and much of his sense of self; as decades pass, he lives as a permanent child in the wilderness, making friends and enemies among the hobgoblin band, struggling for survival, and trying to remember his past. Meanwhile, his replacement grows up among his new human family, perpetually fearing discovery, trying to fit in, and worrying at his own lost memories of childhood a century ago, when he was in turn stolen by the fairies and replaced with one of their number.

In essence, it is a coming of age story for each child and each child narrates the story in alternating chapters. The strength of the book is in creating the voice and perspective for both. This might be Donohue’s first novel but he has clearly been honing his writing skills while working in DC. He is able to take you inside the mind and emotions of each child as they attempt to deal with the fate they have been dealt and struggle with the emotions of their haunting pasts. Remarkably, he stays “in character” throughout the book while alternating characters and ultimately bringing their lives to the point where they intersect.

It reminded me a little bit of Spies by Michael Frayn with its focus on youth, memory and identity. The replacement of the changeling Henry for the “real” one allows Donohue to explore childhood and its impact on the path our lives take from a unique perspective. The nature versus nurture debate is subtly involved as is the sometimes fragile relationship between parents and their children; the weight of expectations and the problems that can come when those expectations aren’t met. Throughout the story the question of identity hovers in the foreground and occasionally moves front and center.

And because of this unique perspective the past is a haunting character in itself. It is always there. The original Henry is forced to try and recover his past while at the same time come to some terms with the life he has been given. He is trying desperately not to lose his connection to his biological family and yet also make connections with the changelings around him. As he walks this tightrope he wonders is he Henry or Aniday?

The changeling must try to fit in and assume the life of “Henry Day” but his past haunts him as well. While he fears those who love him will reject him if they know the truth, he can’t simply let go of his own complicated past. He delves into his life before he was a changeling and soon begins to obsess over it; despite the fact that it might destroy everything he has built since becoming Henry Day. He too wrestles with his identity. Is he Henry? Still a changeling? Or Gustav?

A restrained sense of loss and sadness is weaved through the novel. In addition to the loss each Henry experiences – the loss of a normal childhood among other things – Donohue also touches on the eventual extinction of the changelings (as modern life seems to be pushing them out of the wilderness they used to inhabit and as death takes its toll) and hints at a loss of innocence that comes with the development of the industrial era. The novel seems poised between a world where myth and mystery are possible and one where everything has a physical and psychological explanation. Donohue never seems to choose sides and instead lets the reader attempt to sort it all out.

And for this reason, despite all the talk of adult fairy tales and fantasy, the writing is clearly in the literary genre. The focus is inward and psychological and, as Publishers Weekly pointed out, “Donohue keeps the fantasy as understated as the emotions of his characters.” It is to his credit that the initial setup and the character’s voice and perspective are compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest. It is not the plot that pulls you forward, although there is a tension that builds as the two characters lives seem destined to collide, but rather the skillful way Donohue describes the character’s internal struggles, motivations, and relationships.

And it is on this point that I think the Brothers Judd review brings up a fair critique:

All that said though, while Mr. Donohue offers up a terrific scenario he doesn’t demonstrate as sure a hand in developing a plot. After the initial ideas are developed — in particular he touches upon the notion that legends like that of the changeling may be a function of parents who didn’t much like their own kids — he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the characters, mood, and setting he created. As a result, I found my attention flagging about halfway through the book and was left dissatisfied by the conclusion. There’s enough here that’s worthwhile to recommend this book, but one suspects that Mr. Donohue will do even better in the future.

I think this is probably a matter of taste. If you like your plots a tight and your loose ends wrapped up, Stolen Child might frustrate you a bit. As I tried to convey above, there are numerous ideas and themes touched on in the course of the narrative: memory and loss; the power of the past; the innocence and cruelty of nature; musical prodigy and obsession; truth and deception in relationships; myths as a way to make sense of the unexplainable. Little of this is resolved or neatly wrapped up. But if you can enjoy the journey and not worry about the destination, it is a beautiful and evocative novel.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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