Publication Date: June 13, 2017
Format: E-book from Netgalley
This intelligent, intriguing modern day fairy tale starts out in what seems to be a normal world. It begins with the birth of the protagonist, Apollo, a child of mixed race to Lillian Kagwa (a Ugandan immigrant) and Brian West (a white parole officer.) His father had held him as a baby telling him he was Apollo, the God. This becomes a mantra for Apollo later in life. Brian West disappears by the time Apollo is four years old, but Apollo continues to have dreams, or maybe nightmares, about his father returning. In a box of items left behind by Brian is a well-read copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. The Changeling becomes a retelling of this award winning children’s book. Apollo is an avid reader and at a young age becomes a buyer and seller of used books.
Even before the witches and trolls appear in this novel, there are hints of the monsters in the ordinary. In childhood, “Apollo would find himself wondering if he actually was frightening, a monster, the kind that would drive his own father away.” Then later, Emma’s friend, Nichelle, explains to Apollo, about the nude photo of Emma hanging in Amsterdam. Nichelle says of Emma, “She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
Race and casual racism is discussed throughout this book. When Apollo is young and trying to sell his books in the higher end spots in Manhattan, the author writes “Every kid with excess melanin becomes a super predator, even a black boy with glasses and a backpack full of books. He might be standing at the entrance for fifteen minutes while the clerks pretended not to notice him.” Later in the novel, Apollo is stopped by a cop in a white section in Queens and says, “that was fast.”
This book also speaks to the new age of parenthood, of more involved dads, and of social media. Apollo Kagwa is one of these new age dads who is very much involved in the parenting of his child. He enjoys taking him to the playground and bragging with the other dads about new milestones. He posts countless photographs of his son, Brian, on Facebook. Apollo’s wife, Emma, meanwhile, begins showing signs of postpartum depression. She tells Apollo that she has received strange texts of pictures of the baby that have disappeared shortly after receiving them, which Apollo dismisses. “You’re what’s wrong with our family, Emma. You. Are. The. Problem. Go take another pill.” The horror in this novel is the experience of parenthood itself, the no-win situation regarding the expectations facing parents, the feeling of needing to protect your child, and ultimately the loss of a child.
Apollo finds a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the inscription to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.” He knows that this book could have a great payday, however, it does not pay in the way he expects. After barely surviving the wrath and rage of his wife, he realizes that perhaps his wife was right. He ends up on a journey with many twists and turns through mystical realms of witches, trolls and even some human monsters.
This novel warns of the dangers of social media and putting your life out there for all to see, judge, and possibly take advantage of. William tells Apollo, “Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them. Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.” It seems that Emma Valentine and Brian Kagwa were the perfect target for trolls with the publicized birth of their son, followed by continuous Facebook posts by Brian.
This book speaks to deeper truths about the monsters within each of us. The glamer we are able to superimpose over our own misbehaviors to make us feel better about ourselves. It warns of trolls lurking in everyday places and people. This book is not simply a retelling or a fairy tale, there are many layers and depths to it. The social commentary is sharp, but easily consumed within the context of this fantastical setting. It is about the stories we tell ourselves as well as our children and the effect these stories have on us. There is some pretty graphic violence though, so consider yourself forewarned.
- In the words of Cal, one of the witches, “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral. A great fairy tale tells the truth.” According to Cal’s guidelines, is this a bad or great fairy tale, or somewhere in between? Explain.
- Why did Brian Kagwa become a changeling. Who was responsible? Why was he chosen?
- How is Scottish glamer or “glamour” used in this fairy tale?
- Why do you think Apollo’s father read Outside Over There to Apollo when he was little? Discuss the similarities and differences between these two books.
- What is the meaning of the inscription in Harper Lee’s book in the context of this book?
- What is this book’s message about social media?
- What is a changeling? Where else in literature and film do we see changelings?
- Discuss the social commentary of this novel on parenthood and expectations of mothers and fathers from this novel.
- What genre do you think best characterizes this novel?