Review: The Stolen Child by Keith Donahue

08Jan10

Note: This is a review I wrote quite some time ago (more than a year) but it was buried in my personal journal and I didn’t want to lose it. So here it is.

Title: The Stolen Child
Author: Keith Donahue
Publisher: Anchor
Year published: 2007

Spoilers: A few.

Recommended: It’s been a long while since I read it, but I can’t imagine giving this book as a gift. It’s certainly not a book to avoid, but nor is it a book to seek out.

Back when I was working at Borders, I picked up this book off the free shelf in the back room. I probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise, despite my affection for modern takes on the world of the fey (Holly Black and Emma Bull are to be blamed for this). It’s marketed as a literary novel, which makes a certain amount of sense–despite the fact that the two main characters are a changeling and the boy the changeling displaced, there is almost nothing magical about this story, and that was the major failing for me.


We talk sometimes about the implicit promise of a story. The opening of the story instructs the reader in what to expect. On a simplified level, opening with a space battle implies that the story is going to have a fair amount of action. The theme of a novel begins to take shape from the first page, and it is important to be aware of the impressions and assumptions gleaned from whatever is first presented. In the case of The Stolen Child, the narrative opens with a description of the names and types of fairies, describing many in turn in order to describe a particular subset, the hobgoblins. From the perspective of someone fairly well versed in fantasy in general and ‘fairy stories’ in specific, these passages were quite dull. They introduce a very standard view of the world of fey, and while the writing is competent it is not poetic enough to excuse the fact that it is essentially an encyclopedia entry of unoriginal ideas. However, the major problem with this is that it implies that the extended world of the fey is important to the story–when in fact, there is never again a mention of anything but the hobgoblins, or implication that any other mystical creatures exist.

The hobgoblins themselves begin as an intriguing cast. When they steal Henry Day, they cocoon him up and carry him away, leaving one of their own in his place. This new Henry Day is carried home, and “vomits at the doorstep a mess of watercress, acorn husks, and insect exoskeletons.” This was the sort of detail I longed for throughout the rest of the novel–signs of the strangeness of these hobgoblins. Instead, they went from strange and magical to being a strange mix of animal, child, and adult which could have been captivating but instead fell flat. The opening led me to expect one type of fairy, which was not delivered, and what was seemed inconsistent and bland. They are described as being misshapen at times, but Aniday (Henry Day’s name once he is taken into the changeling tribe) is recognized by his father. These changelings wear worn-out t-shirts, don’t seem to have consistent rules about whether or not they need to eat, and read modern literature stolen from the library. Briefly it is mentioned that they can heal animals in some way, in a scene that could have had far more power than it did–but this detail is dropped as well.

The chapters alternate between Aniday (the stolen child) and Henry Day (the changeling who replaced him). The author’s decision to alternate in such a strict manner creates some bizarre changes in time, leaping backward and forward so that the meaning of events changes after you have read them. This technique can be used well, but in this case it only creates confusion and robs power from the earlier scenes–such as that where the father sees his lost son, told from each perspective in entirely the wrong order.

I am not literary in my writing or my reading habits, but I often appreciate literary works even when I don’t necessarily enjoy them. At times I admired the storytelling. Always these times were in Henry Day’s sections, snippets of the life of a boy and man who feels he perhaps does not quite belong. However, this sense of alienation and estrangement remained too subtle through much of the piece to justify the premise. The story of Henry Day was only weakened by the knowledge that he truly did not belong, while the story of Aniday remained lackluster throughout. In the one story line, there was too much magic, and in the other not enough.

Ultimately, this novel failed to bring together the literary and fantastical styles and traditions. Such work can be more powerful for its use of these disparate traditions, but with the stitches clearly showing, The Stolen Child felt too patchwork. As Aniday and Henry Day wonder who is fey and who is human, and never fully reconcile the two, the story struggles with whether it is a purely literary work or a fairy tale, and fails as the characters do.

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