The Changeling, 40th Anniversary Edition, is a reissue after author Joy Williams originally published her fantastical novel in 1978 to mixed reviews. For me, the novel resonates with magical realism via the stream of conscious voice of a mentally fragile and perpetually drunk young woman, named Pearl. A simpleton with humble lineage and lacking much education, Pearl nevertheless surprises the reader with her rich inner life rendered in vivid and powerful descriptive prose.
Although Pearl is plain spoken and unsophisticated, her ability to parse the souls and physicality of the people who populate her world, both amuse and agitate. The novel is frustrating at times to follow, swinging wildly between reality and magical realism—less lyrical than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s writings yet similar to the surreal rantings of Philip Roth.
Reading this novel was a disorienting, visceral experience that made my mind itch and twitch, as if trying to come down from a caffeine buzz. Pearl knows how to peg people—she sees straight through them, beyond their masks into their minds but her ability to read people isn’t enough to save her from herself. She finds herself trapped on an island—out of capitulation rather than force— inhabited by the extended family of which she now belongs by marriage and widowhood.
The patriarch of the island, Thomas, brother of Pearl’s deceased husband, is a collector of children—12 orphans to be exact who live on the island in the big familial house. An intellectual narcissist who distracts and controls with flowery words and lofty philosophical musings, Thomas is the de facto guardian of Pearl after her husband died in a plane crash. “He was her guardian, her host. Even so, it was quite obvious to the children that there was pain between the two and dislike,” Williams writes describing their fraught relationship. Pearl spends her days drinking by the pool, feigning mild interest in the adopted children, who seem feral beings attached to Pearl and competing for her attention. Much of the novel is focused on Pearl’s interactions with the children, all of whom seem anchored to the island by an invisible force field that is slowly making them insane.
William’s prose reminds me of author Philip Roth’s style of maddening, stream of conscious ramblings. In Roth’s novel, Sabbath’s Theater, the main character Mickey Sabbath, a depraved, lost soul, spends much of his life in his head, desperately musing about the indignities and trivialities of the human condition. The Changeling isn’t propelled by plot but rather its descriptive powers that render Pearl’s world in high definition. The plot plods along without much action but a lot of backstory as Williams uses words to paint her characters in great detail. “Jesse was a curious little child with a huge barrel chest and skin that seemed puckish and a watery blue. Even when he was dressed properly and eating with them in the formal dining room, he looked wet.”
The Changeling left many obvious details to question and loose ends never addressed: The author makes it clear at the beginning of the story why Pearl escaped the island, but why was she there in the first place? The very vague backstory describes a shoplifting encounter in which a man catches Pearl in the act then carts her off to his family island where she soon marries him and has an infant son. The author hints often that Sam is not Pearl’s real son, a case of mistaken identity, after a plane crash that killed her husband and probably her infant son. She is given another baby in the hospital, an infant boy she encountered on the plane accompanied by an old woman. Pearl suspects the boy is not her biological child but her suspicions are never confirmed.
The novel’s ending leaves much to question about Pearl’s fate as well as the rest of the inhabitants on the island. The reader is left with a multipage rant that leads one to believe that Pearl has fully and finally gone mad, but what is to become of the children? The Changeling, whether intentional or unintentional, lays bare a universal truth about the human condition— the paradox of feeling so very alone in a crowd of people, in this case an entire island of inhabitants with a silent malaise of the soul. The Changeling is unsettling to read which makes it a work of art evoking uncomfortable emotions through brilliant and masterful storytelling.
Other novels by author Joy Williams: