Book Review: Keith Donohue's "Stolen Child"

(Detail From The Book Jacket)
Reviewed by Graham Joyce
Sunday, July 9, 2006


A Novel

By Keith Donohue

Doubleday. 319 pp. $23.95

Our literary culture is marinated in deep traditions of the fantastic and the supernatural, and we export those rich qualities in films and books on a spectacular industrial scale. It's unfortunate, then, that our sniffy literary establishment should furrow its brow at any and all prospecting around these fictional sources. Quite often important books are marginalized by obtuse prejudice, and I hope this will not be the fate of Keith Donohue's utterly absorbing The Stolen Child.

It's the 1950s, and a 7-year-old boy is abducted by fey creatures from the woods who replace him with a changeling. The story is offered in a double narrative, from the viewpoints of both the abducted child and the changeling. The boy is inducted into the ways of the fey, who seem to dislike the word fairy in favor of hobgoblin . Indeed, these fey-folk are of the unsweetened variety: Some are casually libidinous, and all of them are delightfully grungy.

Meanwhile, the changeling recounts the task of passing himself off as the abducted boy. Everyone accepts him except the father, who seriously doubts his paternity. Already you begin to see the humane layering in this highly evolved story. And yet the metaphors and the allusions, coming thick and fast, never become mere allegory, nor do they threaten or overburden Donohue's commitment to the supernatural subject matter. It's an impressive double act, a fine example of what the French call the fantastique -- an intrusion into realism, a leak from the supernatural world into this one.

Each story involves either the difficulty of remembering or the impossibility of forgetting, the yearning for a lost life or the guilt associated with a past one. This novel permits many different readings. Perhaps at bottom there really is only one protagonist, a fractured psyche that craves integration. One narrative represents the difficulty of negotiating the social world, while the other life stands for the wild woods of the untamed imagination. Or maybe the boy and the changeling represent the guilt of a suburban conformist feeling the call of the wild.

Then again, it might be just about fairies. Beautiful.

One thing that the novel certainly is is a paean to the healing powers of art. It is through artistic endeavor that these two characters seek to address the disjunctions and unhappiness of their lives. The abducted boy craves paper and writing implements to record his experiences and to remember his old life. The changeling is a gifted pianist possessing a talent that reminds him that he, too, was once abducted by the band of the fey. The chains to the past are long.

Inspired by W.B. Yeats's poem about the legend of the changelings, The Stolen Child owes a further debt to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan , another fairy story that was not about fairies at all but about the loss of imagination and about growing up. Oddly, the last novel that grabbed me in this way was Donna Tartt's The Secret History . The surface interests may seem different, but her evocation of college life was no closer to realism than is Donohue's fairy world. Both novels are rites-of-passage tales, and both are about the loss of identity. As in Tartt's novel, narrative here trumps characterization, but maybe that's the cost of achieving the mythic resonance and almost timeless quality of such works.

On the surface, Donohue may seem to have written a clever debut novel about fairies. But the real triumph of the book is that, while our backs were turned, he has performed a switch and delivered a luminous and thrilling novel about our humanity. ?

Graham Joyce's most recent novel is "The Limits of Enchantment."

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