January 27, 2019

Changeling

This novel by Matt Wesolowski is very easy to read. I read it under a day- in a matter of hours actually- it is short but it is also a book in which I was thoroughly absorbed. Wesolowski's book starts with a scenario which is familiar to anyone who is a routine consumer of the news (sadly): a child, in this case a small boy called Alfie, disappeared when his father stopped the car in some woods on the Welsh/English border (the location is important). The cold case is taken up by a true crime podcaster- who presents the material in six narrative segments, each roughly from the perspective of one of the main participants in the drama. These podcast episodes are written out for us as live scripts: one chapter for example will begin in the tone of the young boy's favourite teacher, another will focus on the account of a worker of strange happenings on a building site near the woods, a third will take place in the frame of reference of a friend of the family and so on. We read the interviews which are written in the kind of language people speak and gradually we get a sense of the family and the scenario from which the child was kidnapped and what might have happened thirty years ago.

The first thing that I noticed about this book is the format. Telling this story through six podcast episodes makes the story very immediate. There were moments when I could almost hear the music that comes with one of those podcast- a "serial" or something like it that would set the scene. Wesolowski captures the voices of these individuals very powerfully too: the supply teacher and her affection for the boy, the builder, the retired businessman who owned the building site- all of them are precisely situated. You could imagine these interviews happening on this podcast in that way. Secondly, and perhaps the reason I picked up the book, I noticed the setting. Woods have their own mythical arcana in European folk history. The Welsh and English border speaks to tales of the wilderness and of the marches which spread across it in the Middle Ages. This is set in a place that does have resonances within the culture I grew up in of being ancient, uncanny and strange. Wesolowski plays with images of fairies, and beasts who rise out of the past to confront the conscience of the presence. The wood has a personality: my mind flipped to the wood which the hobbits walk through from Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings and Old Man Willow's deceit but I'm sure everyone will have their favourite tale. The wood continues to be an image winding through the entire book: an image of darkness and mystery and crookedness.

The interviews and the woods set up what is a tale of the darkness of humanity. Most of the characters here operate on the margins of poverty: they are the school drop outs, the waiters, actors etc. It is interesting that there is very little political context to the book: 1988, when the murder happened, was a very particular time in the history of the UK: after the miner's strike but just on the edge of the recession of the early nineties and the poll tax riots. The book does have its standard political characters; the knighted industrialist is instantly identifiable, for example, as a figure from that period. The marginality of most of the characters here is important to the plot- but it is also important to the atmosphere: the stakes for young Alfie are high precisely because everyone around him is on the edge, so to speak. Wesolowski is also brilliant at capturing the attractiveness of various characters: the school teacher with her motherly ability to deal with any child put across from her, the father who is able to convey a kind of sexual charm to almost all the women in the story, the podcast host, whose sincerity I took as axiomatic as I read. There is a message to the story, and I'll leave that for you to discover, as there are surprises along route- but I think the intensity of the character development here is impressive. If you bind that together with the notion of the forest, with the notion of myth, I think what you get is a story that in its darkness has a lot to compare with myth itself.

0 comments: