Jun 7, 2010

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

Fourteen-year-old Laura has always had the ability to sense omens. It first happened shortly before her father left her mother for a younger woman, and it happened again just before Sorensen Carlisle, a boy who Laura is sure is a witch, first came to her school. So when it happens yet again, Laura is naturally alarmed. Her fears are confirmed by the end of the day, when she’s walking home with her little brother Jacko. Laura goes into an antiquarian shop, and both she and her brother sense that there’s something eerie about the shopkeeper. Unfortunately, before they manage to leave he puts a stamp in Jacko’s hand. When the following day he gets sick, Laura knows that what he has is no ordinary illness. But the only person who will believe her when she says there’s something supernatural at work is Sorry Carlisle – which leaves Laura no choice but to ask him for help and face all the complications that this will inevitably bring about.

The plot of The Changeover could be summed up as young-heroine-saves-her-little-brother-from-magical-forces, which is not at all an uncommon motif in folk and fairy tales. In fact, if you merely consider the bare bones of the plot, The Changeover sounds remarkable like The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, for example – but the two books couldn’t be more different. I think I’m going to keep these examples in mind for the next time I hear someone go on about how fairy tale tropes are So Very Limiting. Anyway, what makes The Changeover stand out is not the plot, but the fact that this is a novel that uses this familiar plot to tell a rich and complex story about relationships of all types, about growing up, about sexual desire, about loss, and about learning to cope with change.

Just like The Haunting, the only book by Margaret Mahy I’d read previously, The Changeover reminded me quite a bit of the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones (to whom I’ve been sending all my good thoughts). It’s not that Mahy’s work is derivative; it’s that both authors know how to expertly combine magic, growing pains and common sense to tell fantasy coming-of-age stories with excellent characterisation and believable, intricate relationships. Besides, both write a kind of prose that I find a delight to read: subtle, humorous, warm, and occasionally dark and very atmospheric.

But let me explain what I mean when I say that The Changeover is essentially about relationships: first of all, Jacko’s illness comes at a particularly bad time for Laura and her mother Kate. The family is just starting to recover from Laura’s parents divorce and the money troubles that followed. They’re just beginning to be happy again when all of a sudden several things that destabilize them happen at once, and many old wounds that had yet to heal completely are reopened. I thought Laura’s relationship with Kate was portrayed with amazing perceptiveness and insight (see the first of the passages I share at the end for an example). They’re close, but that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally clash, especially as Laura changes from a child to a teenager. And Laura may be mature, but she’s not above feeling irrationally jealous when Kate meets somebody new.

The other central relationship around which The Changeover revolves is Laura and Sorensen’s, and there’s so much to it that I feel I could write an entire treatise on it. I confess that at first I was rather alarmed – Sorry is quite forward when it comes to his attraction to Laura; he’s also three years older and feels far more emotionally ready for sex than Laura does. The reason why I worried was because I absolutely did not want this to be the grandfather of YA novels that make forceful, intrusive behaviour seem sexy and attractive, and suggest that this is what girls “really” want from guys. I’d have been crushed it that had been the case, but fortunately it absolutely wasn’t.

I don’t want to say that what makes The Changeover work is the fact that Laura puts Sorry in his place, though she most definitely does. But I don’t want to call attention to her actions because she’s not the one who had trouble respecting boundaries to begin with. I fear that making it about her behaviour rather than his and emphasising her assertiveness as the thing that stopped Sorry’s unwelcome advances would just be yet another way of putting the responsibility in her hands. It’d be the same as saying something like, “Why didn’t she say no more often/louder/like she really meant it?” had the advances not been stopped. And that’s the very last thing I’d want to do.

Consent issues are of course not about the person who “fails” to make it clearly enough that no means no; they’re about the person who fails to seek consent. What made The Changeover work was not Laura’s firmness, but the fact that Sorry’s behaviour is not presented as unproblematic. The story never suggests that when he tries to touch Laura without her permission, he’s merely doing what any aroused teenage boy would “naturally” do. The trouble he initially has with boundaries is a direct result of his general social ineptitude, and it’s presented as such. As we get to know him better, we realise that he’s not a complete jerk, but at the same time he’s not given a free pass. I really love the fact that Margaret Mahy managed to pull this off.

The romance between Laura and Sorry starts on the wrong foot, but once it gets going properly, the tension is quite remarkable. There’s no sex in The Changeover, but there’s a lot of realising that you’ll eventually want to have sex for the first time. And this from the perspective of a teen girl. Laura’s budding desire is one of the markers of the beginning of her transition to adulthood, and it’s absolutely not presented as a threatening or shameful thing. She embraces her sexual attraction to Sorry cautiously, but also unapologetically. As she eventually tells him, “I’ll kiss you because I want to, not because you do.” That’s the great thing about this book: it doesn’t present sexual attraction as a game in which one partner eventually yields to the other, but as something in which both people, male or female, are allowed to want with the same intensity.

First Ilyria, and now this. I’d be tempted to complain that all these YA novels that present female desire so naturally and unapologetically were nowhere to be found when I was a teenager, but I can’t: though it was reissued in 2007, The Changeover is actually as old as I am. I wish I’d read it as a teen, but I’m happy that there were other teen girls who did. Anyway, I feel that I’ve barely scraped the surface of everything this book does, but I’ll sum it up by saying that more than anything else, The Changeover is a novel that brilliantly captures the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Another Carnegie Winner, another remarkable book. I really do seem to detect a pattern here.

Favourite passages:
Sometimes, late at night, Kate looked tired and rather old. But she was still pretty in her own special way, her fair hair shining and her long lips curved in a smile so that Laura found it hard to believe that her father could have wanted to live with someone else – a younger woman, quite nice, but not nearly as nice as Kate.
“You’re too kind to me,” Kate said when Laura mentioned this. “It’s best the way it is. We liked too many different things, and I thought I’d change him to my way of thinking and he thought he’d change me to his. Well, we worked on one another for years and years and we both stuck half way. I miss him, but a lot of the time when we were together I just wished he’d go away.” These were true things, Laura knew, but they were only part of the truth which was something less orderly than Kate made it sound. Some parts of the full, disorderly truth were lodged in Kate and Laura like splinters of corroding steel. Their feelings had grown around the sharp, wounding edges which didn’t hurt any more but were still there, fossils of pain laid down in the mixed-up strata of memory.

“Your father doesn’t sound to me as if he could have been really very kind in the first place,” said Laura.
“I think life got to be like war for him.” Sorry looked for a moment as if he were overwhelmed by any explanations he might try to give. “I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve talked about it, and I’ve read books written by people who’ve watched other people very closely, and what I’ve worked out is this – that Tim managed really well in a certain setting, but being out of work put one part of his mind into a state of constant despair – even panic, and who can live with that? I think being violent with me was one way he tried to make sense of it. I mean by having someone or something to blame.”

A friend of Kate’s had recently had a new baby and had given her older child a big, floppy doll with instructions that, if ever he felt jealous of the new baby, he was to punish the doll which could not feel. On a recent visit Laura had watched with consternation as the child punished the doll. “I’m allowed to do this,” he said, hitting it less, Laura felt, out of jealously for the new baby than because he had been given the chance to be infinitely cruel to something infinitely yielding. To Laura, the doll with its button eyes had been a feeling thing – the face had given it at least the appearance of feeling. She wondered if Sorry saw her in the same way as she had seen that child. Given the chance to be cruel, did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?
Other opinions:
A Book a Week
Out of the Blue
Bookshelves of Doom

(Yours?)

22 comments:

  1. Every time I read a post by you on a fantasy novel I become convinced that I need to read more of it. This is not meant to imply anything about fantasy being a "bad" genre or anything; I'm simply not very familiar with it and would like to remedy the situation. I hope you won't mind plaguing you sometime on twitter for a starter-list.

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  2. I read this as a tween, thought it was great, but I probably didn't get a lot of the sexual tension, or if I did, I can't remember any of it now, so it's a good reason to read it again.
    It was part of a collection aimed at 11+ girls (yeah I know...) which was fantastic. It introduced me to such authors as Philip Pullman, Tanith Lee, Astrid Lindgren, louise Fitzhugh,and many more. Even now, i go back to it every now and then, and read some of my favourites again:)

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  3. Ooohh I love that it presents it as HIS problem that he doesn't seek consent rather than hers for saying no. Love, love, love. And also that she can embrace her sexuality. And show that she wants it because SHE wants it not because he wants it. I love the sound of all of that. Another add to the wishlist!

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  4. You make every book sound so good! This one's going on my wish list.

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  5. You've definitely sold me on this one. I especially like your detailed discussion on the issue of consent.

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  6. This does sound like a really interesting and well rounded book. I also liked your thoughts on consent in sexual relationships and think that this book really does a great job of presenting the issues in a complex and realistic way. Great review, Nymeth! I am going to be taking a closer look at this book!!

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  7. You know those sort of reviews you read that when you come to the end, you just have this smile sort of stuck to your face? That's so what this review did to me. Every point you brought up, I just thought, "Wow...this couldn't get any better" and yet it kept doing just that.

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  8. This sounds like a wonderful book, Ana! (and yay, I can comment again!)

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  10. (Erm, sorry for the second comment, I thought the first hadn't posted!)

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  11. Marvelous review! I was so taken by it that I ordered the Changeover from Paperbackswap...along with two other Mahy books...I have no self-discipline.

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  12. Mother! You will have no credits left at this rate! (Can I read the Mahy books when I come home?)

    Ahem.

    This does sound good! Especially positive portrayals of emergent female sexuality, which, yeah, would have been great to have around when I was in middle school. At that age I was reading a lot of, like, Mercedes Lackey - not quite as useful to twelve-year-old me.

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  13. Sounds like a great book! There's an award for you at Kate's Library.

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  14. This was one of my favorite books when I was a teen. I loved the way Sorry was depicted because he's odd which was my view of guys at the time - weird and inexplicable. Yet Sorry also read romances to understand women - loved that.

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  15. This sounds like a book I would have loved too. And I like how you describe the relationships in the book ... they sound real and complex.

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  16. I love how indepth you go with your reviews, Ana. It really gives me a good feel for a book. This sounds like a wonderful book, and one I might like.

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  17. Subtle, humorous, warm, and occasionally dark makes for a very good read!!

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  18. Iris: You couldn't plague me if you tried! I'd love to give you some recommendations :)

    Valentina: That sounds like such an awesome collection. I don't think this one was even translated over here, so no chance I'd read it at that age :(

    Amy: Love indeed <3 If only more books did that.

    Kathy, I hope you enjoy it!

    Christy: I'm glad you liked it, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book!

    Zibilee: I thought it really did, much to my delight! So many books oversimplify the matter. Including certain very popular YA ones :P

    Carl: I know :( My heart completely broke for them when I read that. I can't imagine how hard making the decision to stop treatment must be.

    Debi: I'm glad to hear it sounds good to you :)

    Carolyn: Pirates? Librarian? Say no more ;)

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  19. Amanda: yay! Stupid blogger - I hate that it gave all its detractors reasons to complain ;)

    Carolyn, no problem! Blogger apparently acted up all day on Monday.

    Mumsy: I hope you enjoy them both!

    Jenny: lol. I hope you do borrow them :P And ah, Mercedes Lackey... I've only ever read one of her books, but I can see why it wasn't exactly useful.

    Kate: Thank you again!

    Janicu: He is odd - but I love how we get a peek at what's behind it. And I thought that the scene where he tells Laura that he read romances because he missed his adoptive mother was so sweet.

    Jenners: I really thought they were :)

    Wendy: Thank you so much! I love yours too.

    Staci: Doesn't it?

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  20. I am in awe of the way you have talked about Laura and Sorry's relationship. That's all stuff I felt instinctively, but wasn't able to put words to. I spent some time trying to figure out why I wasn't freaked out by Sorry's treatment of Laura, exactly, but you've said it perfectly -- your whole paragraph on consent issues is remarkable. I don't know how Mahy did manage to pull it off so well; that's not an easy relationship or balance to strike at all.

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  21. Kiirstin, thank you for the kind words! I loved your post too, especially how you highlighted the rhythm of the language. And yes, I'm in awe of the fact that Mahy managed to pull this off!

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  22. I love Mahy. I think of her as the antipodinal goddaughter of Ursula LeGuin and Diana Wynne Jones. Her books are reliably surprising, if you know what I mean. I don't think any author makes a more craftswomanly use of the supernatural. If you liked this one I think you would like Memory even more. It's my favorite of hers.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.