A Changeling in Our Midst: Lisa Carey’s The Stolen Child

For my final review I am going straight to the fairies and the havoc they wreak in the lives of mortals.

Lisa Carey’s The Stolen Child is set on Saint Brigid’s island off the coast of Ireland in the late 1950s. The conditions could not be more primitive or intimidating, with no electricity, no doctor and no harbor, but when an American woman named Brigid inherits her uncle’s property there, nothing can keep her away. She is strong and talented, a healer and a midwife. Because her Irish mother was raised on this same island, Brigid understands the language and knows more than the natives at first realize. She also has an agenda: there is something she wants on Saint Brigid’s, but to get it she must first enter into the lives of its secretive inhabitants.

While trying to create a life from the soil up, Brigid meets a pair of sisters, Rose and Emer, who are her link to the local culture. Rose is beautiful and well liked, while Emer is shunned and misunderstood. Emer is also a woman who has tangled with fairies. She holds them responsible for a childhood accident during which she lost an eye, and she lives in the fear that they will one day take her son, Niall. (She believes a fairy saved Niall shortly after his birth, and unfortunately fairies always come back to reclaim such children.) Niall appears to suffer from what might normally be considered a neurological disorder, and Emer won’t let him out of her sight. She would prefer to leave Saint Brigid’s and is one of the few people to support a government-backed evacuation and relocation project.

On this enchanting and sometimes menacing island Brigid discovers a culture that exists somewhere between the world of the fairies and that of the Catholic faith. Saint Brigid, after whom the island is named, has a dual nature, fueled by both Christian and pagan narratives. At first Brigid is puzzled by the contradictions in the people around her:

“On the one hand they are superstitious, never walking past places where fairies might cause mischief, crossing themselves multiple times a day. On the other they seem pragmatic and dismiss notions of fairies when it suits them. Rose will talk of Emer as if she is cursed and then act as if she is just regrettably sour. They seem to respect some parallel world at the same time as they brush the very idea of it away.”

In this parallel world Brigid will find the answers she seeks, which are linked to her own dark past and family history.

Brigid learns the location of the island’s sacred well, said to “cure illness and infertility and protect babies’ souls,” only after she enters into an intimate relationship with Emer. She wants a child and needs a miracle to address the specific cause of her infertility. Unfortunately, the lesbian relationship in this novel is of the depressing and shame-ridden variety, and it does not end happily. While I understand that the novel is set in Ireland in 1959, I still could not help but feel disappointed by this strand of the narrative. Overall, however, The Stolen Child is a well-constructed novel that earns its optimistic ending.

This novel made me think about parenthood in a new way, through the lens of the other side. Changelings come from the fairy realm. They are exchanged for a human child, usually in infancy but sometimes later. Changeling tales exist all over the world, and in these stories the human family will typically go to great lengths to get the original child back. At the most basic level, the changeling motif in folklore reflects human fears of being lost or of losing one’s child. Carey demonstrates that the anxiety around the changeling entity in any culture stems from a painful awareness that our children don’t ever truly belong to us. We cannot guarantee their safety. The threat of separation and death is never absent from parenting territory.

If you enjoy this topic, two other important novels were published in 2017: Hannah Kent’s The Good People and Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling. Another old favorite of mine is Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child.

This is where I leave you, in the realm of magic. I want to thank my editors at Luna Station Quarterly and all my readers for giving me this column. I hope I have inspired you to keep this genre alive. Thank you for reading.