THE STOLEN CHILD, an ingeniously crafted tale about hobgoblins, is a coming of age story and one about identities both lost and found. This beguiling yet tragic novel is placed in the recent past when, at least in the "sophisticated" and technology driven West, the faery myths have lost their hold on the popular consciousness and the creatures have thus become, to our loss, an endangered species joining griffins, mermaids, gorgons, centaurs, and unicorns.
It's the late 1940s in a rural setting, seven year-old Henry Day, alone in the woods near his home, is abducted by a band of a dozen hobgoblins, which, in mythology, are faeries "gone bad". By the story's definition, each hobgoblin was once human before being kidnapped while still young and, by some subtle process, turned into a creature that never ages, even over hundreds of years. At some point, determined by seniority within the group, a hobgoblin, or "changeling", can return to the society of humans by co-opting the identity of a kidnapped child. Once returned to the "upper world", the hobgoblin takes up the aging process where he/she left off. In this case, Henry, now "Aniday", languishes in the purgatory of eternal childhood while his replacement matures to fully actualized adulthood as "Henry Day". Aniday's tragedy comprises an identity and life's potential lost, while Henry's is that his new identity vies with that of his previous human existence, began in 1851, which Day subliminally remembers and eventually obsesses over.
The novel's thirty-six chapters alternate between Aniday and Henry, each telling his first-person story as it extends over three decades, the history of each touching at points with the other until a final confrontation, such as it is.
This is Keith Donohue's first novel, and I'm awarding five stars for cleverness, though it does have problems which would compel me to grant only four if coming from a more accomplished author. The story concludes in a way that was, for me, very unfulfilling; I thought it lacked closure for both characters. Also, the hobgoblins, who were all once human and can become so again anytime they chose, now live a wretched, unhygienic, near-starvation existence continually exposed to the elements and possible injury while subsisting only with the help of food, garb, and utensils scavenged or stolen from humans. (Indeed, the mischievous hobgoblin will steal one sock from a clothesline to create "the mystery of the missing sock from every washday".) That being the case, the author, while removing for the reader much of the magic, mystery and whimsicality of the faeries' existence, supplies no compelling imperative for them to remain the creatures they are. Indeed, they exist at all because human society once believed in their reality, and they now approach extinction because the twentieth century's technological enlightenment leaves them no room.
THE STOLEN CHILD is a fairy tale for adults that transcends standard fare.