Most reviews are going to start by telling you about how spooky this novel is, the eerie atmosphere etc. I’ll get to that but the thing that struck me first, on finishing the book, was the subtlety and nuance of Changeling. The novel is loaded with hints and clues but they are discreetly woven into the story and yet hit you like a lightening bolt when you get to the end of the story, the final jaw dropping revelation. Another subtlety is the way characters are drawn which reveals their inner-selves, whether they are lying or telling the truth and despite their contradictions and limited self knowledge. This is a short novel, it has the punch of a good play, the interview style lends itself to that. Wesolowski has also brought this format to life, it’s very exciting, very inventive – a lesser writer might produce something stilted. If these interviews were conducted in a police station, for example, they wouldn’t be half as revealing. It’s the pod cast format that gets the witnesses to drop their guard and reveal themselves.
Wesolowski has hit on an original driver with his storytelling style, this is the third Scott King “Six Stories” podcast novel (of course, podcasts have featured in novels before but not like this). That gives Changeling a modern twist, King presents a true crime show that covers a cold case in six episodes, each featuring a witness to the crime or its background. Each interview is prefaced by King, who also makes incisive observations during the interview, pay attention his opinions and descriptions help to put flesh on the bones of the characters and the story. King’s reactions to the people he interviews are another subtlety of the novel. But of course as readers we weigh the evidence and the testimony ourselves – that is very engaging.
So character is at the heart of this beautifully crafted novel but it fizzes with atmosphere; a moody, off kilter feel that maximises the tension of a tragic story – the disappearance of a small child. The sense of foreboding and spookiness is palpable. It’s disquieting but then we are dealing with grief, loss, fear and guilt. The little stories people tell and the asides that come up bolster the sense of ill ease in the general thrust of the narrative.
A great thriller comprises many elements but it hinges on the ending, if the author gets it right the novel makes poetic sense. The outcome is like a tumbler lock, the last click gives meaning to the rest, the safe opens and the contents are revealed in their entirety. The kicker at the end of most novels doesn’t come as a surprise because either the twist is obvious or the writer is at such pains to hide their intention that they force you towards considering something bizarre or unusual and, low and behold, there’s your answer. The kicker in Changeling caught me out, it’s sign posted so subtlety that it only clicked at the reveal. It’s an elegant ending, here is ‘poetic balance’ (something that will make sense of you read the book). For that moment of revelation alone this novel is worth it.
I’m not the biggest fan of the eerie and the mystical, and I have no interest in horror per se (except my fascination with real human tragedy, real horror), but I am a fan of great writing, of inventive and original story telling, of creative structuring of the plot and heart shredding tension. All of which Matt Wesolowski delivers. I loved The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley and wouldn’t miss one of Cathi Unsworth’s spooky novels, Wesolowski had the same effect on me; “Tap … tap … tap … tap-tap…” got into my head – as it will yours!
1988. Sorrel Marsden has invited himself for Christmas with his estranged wife, Sonia, and their son, Alfie. Sorrel then bundles the boy into his Fiat Panda and heads to his North Wales home claiming that Sonia was “shrieking and delusional” and “could not be reasoned with”. Sorrel claims to be rescuing the boy from his alcoholic mother. It’s late, Sorrel later states that he heard knocking in the engine as they drove through Wentshire Forest. He stopped to investigate, his head under the bonnet for no more than five minutes, but Alfie is gone when he looks up. Distraught he rang 999 but no trace of the boy is ever found, Alfie is declared dead in 1995. The case is media fodder for a period, Sonia is vilified because she won’t play along with the press game and Sorrel toughs out the suspicion.
Present day. Scott King author and presenter of The Six Stories received a letter; “…the handwriting on the front sends a tingle of fear from the base of your spine, up to the knobbly occiput at the back of your skull. As if an icy finger has been placed delicately on each nerve ending. The handwriting is frail and spidery…”. And so begins the re-investigation of Alfie’s disappearance. Six witnesses are interviewed, including a clairvoyant. The Forest itself almost takes the form of a character; this is an ancient wood, the site of a bronze age burial, the “Wentshire cripple”, home to witches and mysterious happenings. Folklore speaks of the Talwyth Teg, the fairy folk, who kidnap children and replace them with changelings. Everyone succumbs to an eerie feeling and the strange knocking of the Forest. Was Alfie spirited away? Did his father murder the boy, using the myths and legends to mask a heinous crime?
A masterly piece of storytelling, very sinister, deliciously entertaining.
Paul Burke 5/5
Changeling by Matt Wesolowski
Orenda Books 9781912374571 pbk Jan 2019