Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Stolen Child

Review by Ann Skea

The Stolen Child.
Keith Donohue.
Random House. 2006. 319 pp.
ISBN: 0 224 076 973.

Every child acts strangely at times, and every parent wonders where that behaviour came from, where it was learned, or whose genes might be responsible for it. "Must have been swapped at birth," we sometimes joke, disowning responsibility. But in more superstitious times we might not have been joking. Changelings, children stolen away by the faeries, trolls, green-men, wodwoes, hobgoblins—mischievous little people who are sometimes glimpsed and often placated by special greetings or by food left on the doorstep at night—all these are common in folk-lore. And in many places the belief in such things still lingers.

Keith Donohue draws on these stories and weaves an intriguing tale of two boys, both of whom have at one time in their lives been stolen from their families and a changeling left in their place. Now, in alternating chapters, they tell their strange stories, and gradually their lives begin to touch.

For Henry Day, aged seven, the book begins with the end of his normal family life and the beginning of his existence as Aniday amongst the unaging, feral hobgoblins who haunt the local woods. He has much to learn.

Meanwhile, the new Henry Day who takes his place must transform himself from hobgoblin to human child and convince his new human family that he is their child. Much preparation has already taken place, but for him, too, this is a challenging learning experience.

The Stolen Child starts rather slowly, but as events bring Aniday and Henry Day closer to each other, the tale becomes more interesting. Aniday forms a close relationship with Speck, a girl hobgoblin who helps him to understand the unwritten laws by which the hobgoblins live, the hierarchy through which they may someday return to the human world, and the careful and dangerous process by which this may be achieved. Aniday sees what happens when such an attempt fails and, in the process, comes into brief, forbidden contact with his human father.

The new Henry Day progresses through childhood, school, college and marriage, always with the knowledge that he was once (before he was stolen away and lived as a hobgoblin) someone else. Scraps of memory surface, and a precocious musical gift, which puzzles him and his family and sets him looking for his past. His search and his strange and obsessive behaviour have real parallels in our everyday world amongst people with Asperger syndrome. And, as he learns more about his first human identity and the shadowy figure of Aniday, the boy he replaced, begins to have real presence in his life, a crisis threatens.

Keith Donohue's exploration of these two lives becomes more absorbing as suggestions of the real psychological dilemmas of a split personality surface, but these are never elaborated, and the book never loses hold of the imaginative fantasy which lies at its heart. Donohue walks the thin line between the believable and the wholly fantastic with skill. And anyone who still harbours even the vaguest suspicion that there might be something unknown and dangerous out there in the darkness will probably enjoy this book.


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