In this 40th anniversary edition of Joy Williams's legendary second novel, an alcoholic mother is convinced after an accident that her baby has been replaced with another, which she takes with her to live on a surreal Northeastern island owned by her husband's wealthy family.
Forty years after its first publication, The Changeling feels at once unprecedented and eerily familiar. Readers who discover it in 2018 may be surprised to feel a primordial déjà vu; a tingling where their own antlers might have been, once upon a time. Every great book shape-shifts with its reader. The Changeling does something wilder still: it generates its own autonomous magic, one that feels wholly independent of the reader and her moment. Critics get a little nervous, I think, when their breath fails to fog up the glass. But The Changeling is not a mirror: it’s a window. It is refreshingly, transgressively uninterested in reflecting the familiar dramas of human life, or in reproducing the conventional grammar of human thinking. The book is concerned, instead, with time’s tyranny—how we live under its sorcery, burdened by our substanceless memories while equidistant at every instant from an imaginary future ... Part of the pain of The Changeling is feeling the years pass. Like no book I have read, it is illumined by the spark of life, the life that wears a thousand skins. Its wisdom is unparaphrasable.
The Changeling is less about the story than the sentences, which are, in this reviewer’s estimation, enchanting. Not everyone agrees. In his infamous review, Broyard spent much of his time quoting sentences and calling them impenetrable. Your appreciation of The Changeling will depend on if you find appealing sentences such as (to pick two of Broyard’s targets), 'Oh to bring back the days when stars spoke at the mouths of caves,' and 'She was young but some day she would be covered with ants.' The great witchcraft of The Changeling’s prose is not in the individual phrase, but in the movement of its sentences. What makes Williams’s style so hard to pin down is her ability to shift register, style, and mood on a dime ... Throughout the novel, her sentences seem to absorb everything—darkness and humor, myth and mundanity, irony and pathos—and fuse them together by some strange alchemy. The Changeling is a novel where everything is shifting from the events to the language ... The Changeling remains Williams’s fullest plunge into the uncanny and the magical. Give it a try. Let it cast its spell on you.
The meticulously arranged prose...undergoes a kind of transmutation, with long passages that veer into ecstatic modernism. There’s a sense that this novel is echoing Pearl’s alienation—from everyone around her, from her own body, from reality. But again, this isn’t a strictly realist work—and the way in which Williams references the unreal throughout is one of the things that gives it so much power ... Characters in The Changeling are trapped in myriad ways: in bodies they hate, in families they despise, in isolation that pushes them towards madness or illness. Much of the novel’s dizzying power comes from the juxtaposition of the familiar—a young woman who finds her own life caught up in that of the wealthy and powerful—with that which seems at odds with it: transformations, myths, and creation stories.