Faerie Tale & The Stolen Child
A Double Review
I read these books in quick succession and they are interesting looking at in tandem for their affinities and differences. The first (in order of reading, and also in publication date) was Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988) which I’d known about for a few years but only got round to reading recently. I sort of expected it to be a bit of a guilty pleasure kind of a book rather than anything too high-brow, and I wasn’t mistaken. It was like watching something on Netflix – with the usual contemporary quota of sex, violence and special FX. Feist transposed fairy folklore motifs to New York State in a similar way to De Lint’s fictionalised Canadian town. A ‘perfect’ family – a successful writer father, beautiful and intelligent mother, young scampish twin brothers, and a step-daughter from a former marriage – move into a ‘characterful’ old place once belonging to an eccentric German emigrant. You just know things are going to go weird. The fun here is seeing what an American author does with European fairy and folk motifs. It’s an uneven mix – in some instances, Feist gives them a darker edge, for examples, a shape-changing Puck-type who rapes the daughter; in other ways, the cutesy corny iconography of little beings with wings remains. There is the Wild Hunt, vividly imagined, especially by Geoff Taylor’s masterful cover (fans of Robert Holdstock will recognise the cover artist’s style – and I suspect Taylor was chosen to win over fans of the recently published Mythago Wood (1984) and Lavondyss (1986), with this coming out in 1988 originally), given an almost Terminator 2-ish makeover, glistening with silver fire. But then Feist unconvincingly adopts a pseudo-Shakespearean register in some of the later scenes, a slippage of tone which threatens to undermine the narrative – gripping in other ways as it reaches it denouement. As a page-turner, and a pot-boiler, it is fit-for-purpose, a schlocky bit of comfort reading. The boys are resilient and their intimate sibling world is well-evoked, as is that of the annoying teenage ‘princess’, heiress to a fabulous fortune. Old Barney, an Irish-American living close by, is the stuff of stereotype but has a certain charm about him – an Old World evocation of the Fairy Faith. The occult author, Blackman, is in many ways less likeable and convincing – he seems little more than an expositional device for info-dump research into the narrative. The whole artifice of the novels feels a bit flimsy, as though Feist is playing dressing up with these tropes – a bit of a literary tourism – rather than writing about them in an embodied, felt and authentic way. It is a curiousity more than a work of any lasting literary values – but it probably paid the bills. And for any creative following their bliss that’s an achievement not to be sniffed at.
In contrast, Keith Donohue’s debut novel, The Stolen Child (2006), is literary fantasy of real quality. You can tell from the exquisitely crafted prose that this was a labour of love about a subject the author clearly had an obsession with – indeed it feels at times as though it is semi-autobiographical in part. It relates the story of a Henry Day, a malcontent pianist languishing in small-town mid-America, who turns out to be not Henry Day at all but a changeling, that is a fairy who has stolen the identity of the original Henry, while the human child has been lured away to the ‘waters and the wild’, as in WB Yeats’ classic poem. The drama is primarily created by the tribulations of this ‘cuckoo’ and his attempt to fit in to the Day ‘nest’. His father intuits something is awry and suffers as a consequence, haunted by the gnawing uncertainty that the child is not his own for years. Donohue deftly alternates this life in the ‘daylight’ with the demi-monde world of the changelings, which the author as imagined as a kind of tribe of ‘lost boys’ (and girls), living an anarchic, feral existence on the fringes of the human world. These fairies are charmingly human – albeit with the odd supernatural ability (e.g. shape-changing). They are also doomed to remain the same age they were when abducted – on the outside, at least, resulting in an uneasy collision of adult foibles and desires in a child’s body. Many of them look on with envy at the human world – its range of cuisine, clothing and literature. It drives some of them to make a den beneath the public library – and indeed the changelings seem bound the human world, rather than dwelling in another world, which doesn’t seem to exist. None of the usual pantheon from the Fairy Tradition seems to exist beyond these rather sad strays. It’s a lonely, impoverished life which makes the changelings adult-children pitiful, more than fearful. The human imposter, ‘Henry Day’, is far more sinister, yet even this unlikable anti-hero becomes redeemed somewhat by a girlfriend, and by his music. Through the latter he attempts to make amends, by creating a symphony which gives voice to the dis-enfranchised stolen children. In some ways, the novel’s dramatic arc is one depicting the creative process. From the creative tension and cross-fertilisation of worlds, art is born. But not without cost. Donohue’s ecosystem is closed one of ruthless reciprocity. Everything comes at a price. The tighter focus of The Stolen Child makes it claustrophobic, but more effective and convincing. The writing is more finely-crafted than Feist’s – sentences not just being utilitarian, relentlessly driving the plot forward like script slug-lines, but actually an aesthetic pleasure to read. This is an author with an eye for detail – the minutiae of both worlds. The uncanny is framed within a sharply rendered American setting. The tone is one of realism, not fey whimsy. And there is successful inter-textuality. Here, Donohue delightfully has the changelings glutting on Shakespeare and other poets, revelling in any writing that references them, that makes it feel as though they exist. Art gives them voice, even agency. They can have an existence beyond the narrow confines of their world. Donohue has clearly done his research, but here weaves it in with elfish skill. The only slip is in the strangely clunky beginning – when he info-dumps unnecessary etymologies on us. There is a sense of a fledgling author finding his feet, or voice – but when he does, the prose takes flight. I look forward to more from this promising and clearly highly-accomplished author.
Kevan Manwaring 23 July 2016