Friday, November 27, 2009

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

There were a couple catalysts for me reading this book. Nymeth reviewed another Mahy supernatural, The Haunting, not long ago (one I haven't read yet, but is on the list now) and someone else tweeted that they had to stop reading The Changeover because it was creeping them out too much. Normally, I wouldn't consider "it's creeping me out!" to be a recommendation -- I would quietly go find something with puppies and rainbows to read -- but this book was one of my favourites when I was much younger, and I've been itching to pick it up again. I wanted to see if a) it was as good as I remembered, and b) if it really was that creepy to me. It's been -- oh gosh, fifteen years? since I last read this book. Tastes change. But Nymeth's favourable feeling on The Haunting convinced me that Mahy's writing may be worth a second look.

One person's creepiness, by the way, is another person's perfectly enjoyable suspense. I am not a person who can handle certain types of creepiness, but I think The Changeover suits me perfectly. I can certainly see where it might be considered creepy though.

Laura Chant is a fourteen year old girl, growing up in the suburbs of what I believe must be Wellington, New Zealand. She lives with her mother Kate and her three-year-old brother Jacko, and they're a relatively happy little family, though not problem-free. Laura's father left them for another woman just after Jacko was born, and there's not a lot of money to go around. But overall things are good. Except that when the story opens, Laura gets a warning (wonderfully and atmospherically described), and shortly after that, Jacko falls severely ill. Laura knows what's wrong with him but not how to fix it, so she seeks out help from an older boy at school, who happens to be a witch.

Okay, much more than that and I start to spoil things. It's a very complex little story despite it's relatively short length and seemingly straightforward plot. It's largely about growing up, letting go, love, and sex. To be honest, I was a little startled at how complex this story was; there was a lot about it that I didn't remember. And it's not just the plot or the characters that are complex -- the language has a lot of depth, too. There's a strange linguistic rhythm to this story, and Mahy consistenly uses very odd but very apt turns of phrase to describe things. I think it's brilliant, myself, but again this might be a rather individual thing. Take this, for example:

"We won't be living in this place all our lives," Sally had once said scornfully, but Laura liked the Gardendale subdivision for she had just spent a wonderfully happy year there and was trying to lead the sort of life that would encourage a replay with interesting variations.

I would never have thought of writing something that way, but I know exactly what Mahy is getting at. Underneath, the bare bones of this story is about Laura learning how to let go of the replay and embrace the interesting variations. And the variations get very interesting indeed. That witch, for example, is Sorenson "Sorry" Carlisle and he's a ... well. I'm having a hard time describing him. I think as a tween and young teen I found him tremendously attractive as the wounded romantic lead. Now that I'm older, there are parts of what he does that struck me as almost crossing the creepy line, especially at the beginning, when he manages to be menacing, confusing, seemingly heartless, and very horny. Luckily, Laura is no doormat, and she can absolutely handle herself, and Sorry, when necessary. Also luckily, Sorry's not cast in stone, and as Laura gets to know him better, so do we. And he changes, too, like Laura changes throughout, developing a maturity and a better understanding of himself and others that makes him quite endearing.

The dynamics between the characters struck me as being very real, especially the family dynamics between Laura and Kate and Jacko. Further, the confusion and excitement of first love and first lust is really well-played between Laura and Sorry. Laura is a really fabulous character. She's not perfect, but she's smart and practical and very honest with herself, and she's also unique; her voice is clear and I remember feeling, when I was a kid, that I absolutely knew her. I remember wanting to be confident and strong like she was.

I have to say, too, this book has aged really well. I mean, there are a few mentions of Space Invaders down at the local arcade (which filled me with a pleasant nostalgia, rather than causing me to roll my eyes like some dated references might), but other than that this could be set anytime.

I'm really glad I read this again. There are a lot of other little things I loved about it, but I've gone on enough already. I am now in a position of having to find a copy I can purchase myself, because as far as I can tell, this book is out of print, possibly because it sadly suffers from some of the absolute worst covers I have ever seen (the one I've got is the best, and the front's pretty good -- at least Laura looks like I imagined her -- but the back is just... wrong). Seriously, if anyone knows where I can buy a copy, terrible cover or not, let me know. I have access to brown craft paper and crayons for covering purposes.

I'd recommend The Changeover to absolutely anyone, but especially to young women who found themselves loving sparklepires. Sorry's not exactly chivalrous at first, but he's got that bad-boy vibe and Laura could take out a wishy-washy limp sock from Forks anyday. Just be warned: The Changeover requires someone who wants to read excellent, if somewhat dense, writing and characterization. If anyone else has read this, I'd love to hear what you think.

I believe I shall let Jacko have the last word on re-reading:

He always wanted to take a book he already had at home because he thought it would be the same book he liked but made different in some wonderful way.


Phyl said...

Did you feel nervous, going back to a book you'd really liked a few years ago, wondering if you'd still like it? It's always great when you discover that you do, and that there were even things you didn't see then that you do see now.

I always read these books from my younger years with a sort of double vision: I feel how/who I was the first time, and I feel how/who I am now. So the books provide kind of a double whammy.

This book sounds really good.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

What a creepy cover. I read The Haunting a while ago and, to be honest, didn't really enjoy it - each to their own, I say.

Unknown said...

Phyl - Yes, that's exactly it. Double-whammy, I love it! I do find re-reading things I read a long time ago kind of nerve-wracking, especially if I loved them. I've mostly had good experiences, but in a few cases I just can't believe that my younger self enjoyed the book as much as I did. In this case, though, I felt validated -- and also impressed with myself for enjoying it so much when I was a kid, too.

Petty Witter - Oh man, if you think this cover's creepy, I'm glad I *didn't* post the back! It's creepier by ten. Agreed re: to each his/her own, because I can actually quite see how this book wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea. On the other hand, I would definitely encourage people who haven't tried Mahy (unlike you) to try this one because I think she's one of those authors one has to try oneself rather than taking others' word for it!

Ana S. said...

This sounds even better than The Haunting, and like something I'd absolutely LOVE.

Unknown said...

Nymeth - I hope you can find it somewhere! It's definitely worth it. I think if you've liked Mahy before, you will like this one.