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‘The Changeling’ by Joy Williams ****

It pleased me when I saw that Joy Williams’ rather forgotten novel, The Changeling, was back in print after forty years, having first been published in 1978. The New York Times declares Williams ‘one of the great writers of her generation’, an opinion which has been echoed by many.

The Changeling is a novel steeped in mystery and magical realism. Our focus is Pearl, a young mother trapped inside her marriage to Walker. At the outset of the novel, she has fled to the anonymous bar of a Florida hotel, with her infant son, Sam: ‘She was running away from home, from her husband… She had boarded a plane and traveled twelve hundred miles in three hours. The deception that had been necessary! The organization! People were always talking to her at home, on her husband’s island. She couldn’t bear it any more. She had to have a new life.’ This soon proves to be an unsuccessful escape, however, as Walker suddenly appears to force her home.

On her return, the unnamed island off the coast of the United States is ‘transformed into a place of madness and pain’. Pearl soon ‘slips into the delirium of motherhood and alcoholism’, becoming convinced that Sam is not her baby. The Changeling is unsettling throughout, and there is a lot of tension between its characters, as well as between Pearl’s physical body and her mind.

The reissued novel has an introduction by author Karen Russell, whose work I very much enjoy. She writes that the novel ‘feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar’, and goes on to say: ‘Every great book shapeshifts with its reader. The Changeling, however, does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. The spirit inside it is not the human spirit – it is far vaster than that.’

Russell, who says that she has read The Changeling on numerous occasions, comments that Williams’ sentences ‘have a cartilaginous magic. They come glinting out of profound and mysterious depths, slipping quickly through the deadening nets of any easy understanding.’ In a particularly beautifully phrased observation, she writes: ‘This is a young tale; its landscape is the womb of the world, its language is perennially green, and the only thing I can say about it with absolute conviction is that your encounter will surely be very different than my own.’

In the very first chapter of the book, whilst Pearl sits in the Florida bar, Williams captures such an atmosphere, something which goes on to suffuse the entire novel. She also gives us a real insight into the state of Pearl’s mentality: ‘The heavy white air hung visibly in layers. Pearl could see the layers very clearly. The middle layer was all dream and misunderstanding and responsibility. Things moved about at the top with a little more arrogance and zip but at the bottom was the ever-moving present. It was the present, it had been the present, and it was always going to be the present. Pearl was always conscious of this. It made her pretty passive and indecisive usually.’

When, on the way back to the island, Pearl is involved in a plane crash, she becomes convinced that her son has been swapped with another baby. She is uncertain around him, afraid. When he gets older, this feeling still remains; he is a constant reminder to Pearl that something is not quite right. ‘He seemed,’ writes Williams, ‘all the disorder of her heart. She saw the infant in his face still. His other face, his boy’s face, was harder for her to recognize. He didn’t speak to her as the other children did. He kept away. She had no real sense of his purposes. Were not his purposes rooted in her responsibility? But she was an irresponsible woman, removed from everything, floating through space, exercising longing.’

There are some deeply unsettling, nightmarish scenes throughout The Changeling, and elements of strange eroticism. In one particularly chilling example, Williams includes a hallucination which Pearl has: ‘She was having a baby in a large, freshly cut field. There was blood on the grass but it may not have been her own… Her thighs were spread. Her arms were spread. She was going to have a baby. She knew that those around her were going to cut open her stomach and fold back the flaps of skin and unfold the baby from her like a bridal gown. She knew that they would abandon her there, her terrible dark wound a nest for the dying creatures of the night.’

Pearl’s mania develops as the novel goes on, and its scenes become all the more unnerving: ‘In the night, demons chattered in her aching head, not voices at all but comprehensible all the same. Terrible things. Creeping or winged, dark and avenging, carving a woman like her out of carrion, out of mold. Carving this woman out with their sharp beaks.’

Nothing about The Changeling feels at all dated. Rather, it is fresh and original, a modern fairy tale written in lyrical prose, which holds so much surprise. The novel is beguiling and disturbing in equal measure, and it reads as though one is in a dreamlike – or nightmarish – state. There is a real claustrophobia to it, in both its tension and atmosphere, and I found it incredibly creepy.

Williams has authored three other novels and three short story collections; I can only hope that these will become readily available, and soon. I imagine that, like with The Changeling, I will be thinking about each of her stories for a long time to come.

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Girls’ to ‘Death is Not an Option’

I have decided to use a novel which I very much enjoyed reading last December as the starting point for this Book Trail.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to come up with this list, which is largely comprised of beguiling short story collections.

1. The Girls by Emma Cline 26210513
California. The summer of 1969. In the dying days of a floundering counter-culture a young girl is unwittingly caught up in unthinkable violence, and a decision made at this moment, on the cusp of adulthood, will shape her life…  Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiate heat.  Until she sees them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls.  And at the centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways.  Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?

 

2. How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Lucia’s father is dead; her mother is in a mental institute; she’s living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt. And now she’s been kicked out of school—again. Making her way through the world with only a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries to hide, she spends her days riding the bus to visit her mother and following the only rule that makes any sense to her: Don’t do things you aren’t proud of. But when she discovers that her new school has a secret Arson Club, she’s willing to do anything to be a part of it, and her life is suddenly lit up. And as her fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.;

 

178588013.  99 Stories of God by Joy Williams
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Joy Williams has a one-of-a-kind gift for capturing both the absurdity and the darkness of everyday life. In Ninety-Nine Stories of God, she takes on one of mankind’s most confounding preoccupations: the Supreme Being.  This series of short, fictional vignettes explores our day-to-day interactions with an ever-elusive and arbitrary God. It’s the Book of Common Prayer as seen through a looking glass—a powerfully vivid collection of seemingly random life moments. The figures that haunt these stories range from Kafka (talking to a fish) to the Aztecs, Tolstoy to Abraham and Sarah, O. J. Simpson to a pack of wolves. Most of Williams’s characters, however, are like the rest of us: anonymous strivers and bumblers who brush up against God in the least expected places or go searching for Him when He’s standing right there.   The Lord shows up at a hot-dog-eating contest, a demolition derby, a formal gala, and a drugstore, where he’s in line to get a shingles vaccination. At turns comic and yearning, lyric and aphoristic, Ninety-Nine Stories of God serves as a pure distillation of one of our great artists.

 

4. What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura Van Den Berg
The stories in Laura van den Berg’s rich and inventive debut illuminate the intersection of the mythic and the mundane.  A failed actress takes a job as a Bigfoot impersonator. A grieving missionary becomes obsessed with a creature rumoured to live in the forests of the Congo. And, in the title story, a young woman travelling with her scientist mother in Madagascar confronts her burgeoning sexuality and her dream of becoming a long-distance swimmer.

 

5. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting 8603232
In this darkly hilarious debut collection, misfit women and girls in every strata of society are investigated through various ill-fated jobs. One is the main course of dinner, another the porn star contracted to copulate in space for a reality TV show. They become futuristic ant farms, get knocked up by the star high school quarterback and have secret abortions, use parakeets to reverse amputations, make love to garden gnomes, go into air conditioning ducts to confront their mother’s ghost, and do so in settings that range from Hell to the local white-supremacist bowling alley.

 

6. Museum of the Weird by Amelia Gray
A monogrammed cube appears in your town. Your landlord cheats you out of first place in the annual Christmas decorating contest. You need to learn how to love and care for your mate—a paring knife. These situations and more reveal the wondrous play and surreal humor that make up the stories in Amelia Gray’s stunning collection of stories: Museum of the WeirdAcerbic wit and luminous prose mark these shorts, while sickness and death lurk amidst the humor. Characters find their footing in these bizarre scenarios and manage to fall into redemption and rebirth. Museum of the Weirdinvites you into its hallways, then beguiles, bewitches, and reveals a writer who has discovered a manner of storytelling all her own.

 

135946287. Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino
Safe as Houses, the debut story collection of Marie-Helene Bertino, proves that not all homes are shelters. The titular story revolves around an aging English professor who, mourning the loss of his wife, robs other people’s homes of their sentimental knick-knacks. In “Free Ham,” a young dropout wins a ham after her house burns down and refuses to accept it. “Has my ham done anything wrong?” she asks when the grocery store manager demands that she claim it.  In “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” a failed commercial writer moves into the basement of a convent and inadvertently discovers the secrets of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. A girl, hoping to talk her brother out of enlisting in the army, brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving dinner in the quiet, dreamy “North Of.” In “The Idea of Marcel,” Emily, a conservative, elegant girl, has dinner with the idea of her ex-boyfriend, Marcel. In a night filled with baffling coincidences, including Marcel having dinner with his idea of Emily, she wonders why we tend to be more in love with ideas than with reality. In and out of the rooms of these gritty, whimsical stories roam troubled, funny people struggling to reconcile their circumstances to some kind of American Ideal and failing, over and over.  The stories of Safe as Houses are magical and original and help answer such universal and existential questions as: How far will we go to stay loyal to our friends? Can we love a man even though he is inches shorter than our ideal? Why doesn’t Bob Dylan ever have his own smokes? And are there patron saints for everything, even lost socks and bad movies?  All homes are not shelters. But then again, some are. Welcome to the home of Marie-Helene Bertino.

 

8. Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca
Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.

 

Have you read any of these, or have any caught your interest?

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