Keith Donohue,
The Stolen Child
(Talese, 2006)

Keith Donohue has brought forth a magical debut novel full of insights into childhood, adulthood and the seemingly endless longing that largely defines both. He conjures a world of ancient legend and places it on the outskirts of modern civilization, thereby casting an insightful eye upon both.

Like many a story related to childish subjects, there is a complexity here of subtle strength and great depth that speaks to some of the most poignant thoughts and emotions of man. The Stolen Child is a truly enchanting tale that delves into man's eternal questions about the meaning and purpose of life even as it paints the pictures of two extraordinary lives linked together by a common identity.

The Stolen Child tells the story of Henry Day -- both the boy who was born Henry Day and the changeling who assumed Henry Day's identity at age 7. The changelings, of course, are creatures out of centuries-old legend, said to steal children and leave defective changeling impostors in their place. The changelings in this novel are not the ugly little monsters who brought terror into the minds of our distant ancestors, however. They are essentially ageless children, each of them waiting patiently yet interminably for their turn to sneak back into the upper world of humans in place of some other stolen youngster. Young Henry finds himself stolen, baptized in the river into an entirely new life and welcomed into a group of 11 changelings. He learns their ways as his previous memories quickly begin to fade -- but his new life as Aniday is far from idyllic. His rare encounters with humans disturb him, keeping awake a spark within him of the family he left behind and a deep yearning to return. Unlike his new friends, he longs for paper and pencil, feeling the need to write down what he still remembers and to chronicle the story of his new life as the years come and go.

Having finally fulfilled his decades-old dream to return to human life, the new Henry Day faces his own obstacles. Having taken the exact features of the stolen child, he gives Henry's parents no reason to question that he is their son -- not at first, anyway. There are noticeable differences, however -- his new passion and natural skill at music being the most obvious. He has to remember to grow (and to do so in all the right places). And there is always an underlying sense of guilt in the back of his mind, one which is further complicated in time by his growing memories of his own stolen childhood in 19th-century Germany.

Both Henry and Aniday seek a deeper meaning to their uncommon lives: Henry through his music and Aniday through the preservation of his memories in writing. Neither finds fulfillment or peace on his own, for they are two souls tied together in ways neither can truly fathom. Neither can begin to understand who he really is without coming to terms with who he used to be. Fate decrees that their worlds intersect on several occasions, as each one's search for his own identity seems to lead him closer and closer to the other. There are tragedies and triumphs along the way, and I must say I found the tragedies surprisingly powerful and emotional. You read this novel with your heart as much as your mind.

Donohue truly immerses you in the very different yet parallel worlds of Henry and Aniday, and you can't help but feel a close affinity to them both, particularly the latter. You might think the constant switching of viewpoint and narration between the two protagonists would prove clumsy or disorienting, but this is not the case at all. Indeed, the narrative of one constantly reinforces the other, especially when you get two divergent viewpoints of the same event.

Keith Donohue may be a new name on the literary scene, but he's a master storyteller and a true maestro of the written word. Much like the fabled music of the wee folks, his writing mesmerizes and transports you to a completely magical realm that feels somehow strangely familiar, and you emerge from the final page as a changeling of sorts yourself, forever altered on a deeply personal level by this too-brief encounter with the Henry Day who was and the Henry Day who is.

by Daniel Jolley
20 May 2006

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