Joy Williams’s The Changeling belongs on the same shelf as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh—works of visionary genius that are harrowing in the deep, even theological sense. When it was first published in 1978, though, Williams’s novel was, to use Byron’s words about Keats, “snuffed out by an article.”
Anatole Broyard, writing for the New York Times, charged the novel on multiple counts. The plot—an “arbitrary muddle about a young woman who is more or less kidnapped by a man who marries her and takes her to live on an island that is owned by his family”—wasn’t plotty enough for his tastes. The characters were too opaque (the protagonist “is so inert as to seem almost moronic”), the style too turgid, the whole thing a disaster. In Broyard’s snarkily summarizing dismissal, “Only a very talented person could write as badly as Miss Williams does in her second novel.”
Such a filleting, from such a reputable source, had the effect you might expect. The Changeling quickly went out of print. There it languished until 2008, when it was reissued by the small press Fairy Tale Review. Now, Tin House has brought out a fortieth-anniversary edition, complete with a beautiful cover and an excellent introduction by Karen Russell.
At a certain level, I get Broyard’s criticisms. The novel is fantastically, and often confusingly, plotted. It opens in a crisp, almost hard-boiled tone that suggests we’re about to encounter a lean and propulsive narrative: “There was a young woman sitting in the bar. Her name was Pearl. She was drinking gin and tonics and she held an infant in the crock of her right arm. The infant was two months old and his name was Sam.” We soon learn that Pearl is sitting in this Miami bar after fleeing from the North Atlantic family island that Broyard mentions. Ah, we might think, a story of a mother and child on the lam. Exciting!
Soon, though, this possible narrative short-circuits: Pearl’s husband finds her, and swiftly she’s back on a plane to the island. Then, the plane crashes in the swamp. Pearl’s husband dies but she miraculously survives, as does Sam—though she’s convinced that the “Sam” who has survived is an impostor, a supernatural changeling switched in for her actual son: “There was something peculiar about the baby. He was like an animal. She had a baby now that wasn’t hers.” The descent has begun; it only gets deeper and crazier from here.
Back on the family island, Pearl sees her world begin to fray at the edges, with reality and fantasy becoming hard to distinguish. She drinks more and more—gin primarily, but also white wine, really anything to distract her from the sense that something is off with her would-be son and the world at-large. Pearl’s sinister brother-in-law Thomas, now the patriarch of the family, is also a collector of children, having adopted “all manner of misfits and foundlings,” seeing “each child as an exhilarating beast of transmutative delights” and shaping them to his own designs and wishes. These children overrun the island, playing murderous games and acting in a feral manner, asking questions and speaking in a language that is gnomic, uncanny, disturbed: “Did you know that a dead tree struck by lightning can come back to life?”; “Why do you drink? … Because it makes your bones blossom, isn’t that right, isn’t that what you say Pearl?”; “If you mash up the pituitary glands of a cow and use it for shampoo would all the hairs on your head be able to see?”