THE CHANGELING by joy williams

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the book doesn’t really begin until the plane trip back home–but a great red herring of an opener had me unprepared for that fact. i thought i was getting into a woman-on-the-run picaresque (like jaimy gordon’s great SHE DROVE WITHOUT STOPPING) but instead slowly realized i was reading a devastating and much more static portraiture of a unique drunk–a depressed mother whose deep-but-unorthodox vision of childhood ripens to rot after she quasi-survives exiting her own.

often beautiful, uneven, and heroically unresolving, THE CHANGELING is indeed a pagan meditation on childhood, with a radical, almost menacing take on its state of innocence: “…obviously it was improper for her to think that a child could offer her any salvation whatsoever. Little children were too innocent to provide salvation. Indeed, little children were always leading their elders right into the teeth of death” (211).

its plot is so organically arisen that it’s hard to call it contrived. it seems more an accident or an inevitability developing naturally from williams’ initial tragic characterization and observations. we meander, but mostly stall. or sink. scene changes are abrupt — by blackout or harsh cut. i think its lack of momentum works particularly well as it dovetails thematically with the aching stillness of pearl’s depression:

“Are you coming with me, Pearl?” Miriam asked.

“Oh goodness,” Pearl said. “It’s too early in the day yet for me to make decisions.” She laughed as though she had been joking (199).

but pearl is an observant drunk–and what gives THE CHANGELING its stature is the frankness of its observations and the back-door way its sentences get at truths:

One of the children farted.

“That was Tracker,” yelped Franny. “Tracker let the Devil out!”

Tracker leapt up, his arms flailing, but Franny danced nimbly out of his range. She was a humorous, coquettish child. She did a cartwheel out of sheer, mocking joy.

Tracker took several steps after her, but it was a movement apparently without threat, for he squatted on the ground abruptly and assumed a peaceful, far-away look… He flopped on his back in the grass.

Tracker was rowdy and probably cruel, but what could Pearl do about that? Sam was an ever-increasing influence on all of them but what could Pearl do about that? She herself was a weak and evil woman. She was evil because she was unbalanced, she mistook appearance for reality, and she was empty as a sucked egg (133).

buy from the publisher or find it at the library.

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