The Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.
This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.
What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.
The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.
This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.
There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.
My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!
“The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death
Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.
Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.
When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death. If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.
One of my favourite lines in her book is this:
“In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave.” Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.”
The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.
The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death.
If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.
I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:
“and remember: you WILL die.”