Five and a half years into this parenting thing, I see around me the beginnings of a new generation of dads—men who are in touch with their own feelings and who understand their role in a family is not just to provide, but also to nurture. But I don’t see a lot of that in popular culture, yet. Even the empathetic fathers on TV and in books are too often hapless doofs, when they even exist. Victor LaValle’s portrayal of Apollo Kagwa as a deeply believable New Dad in The Changeling was the first reason I fell in love with this book. There’s a lot more to love about this book—from the writing to the incorporation of classic myths to the explorations of friendship and what it’s like to start a family with not enough support—but Apollo helped me appreciate even more deeply my husband as a partner and a father.
There will be spoilers in this review, and it breaks my heart to mess with your experience of the book unfolding, so go read it now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Be careful, though, because I got so into the book that I woke up at 4am today to read the last half of this book—it’s that engrossing.
The Joys of Parenthood
“Parenthood is a story two people start telling together” – Victor LaValle, The Changeling
With sections entitled “First Comes Love,” “Then Comes Marriage,” etc., The Changeling lulls us right into the space of our brains where we first encountered nursery rhymes. If you’re lucky, that’s a happy memory. Even for Apollo, whose dad abandoned him but who was raised by a loving mother, there is magic to the realm of childhood, and it’s delightfully refreshing to read when the “biological clock” of our male protagonist goes off. We then get to watch Apollo fall in love with Emma (a complex and interesting few pages) and then they get married and pregnant. The memorable delivery was honest enough to give me flashbacks, and yet it’s all very artfully written.
In the beginning there are some visitors and there is joy in the new arrival. Emma sings to her little boy, Brian, and even though they are very tired and Brian struggles to latch, the family seems happy. Apollo dotes on his little boy, taking a million pictures and posting them online.
“Apollo stopped moving, even breathing, and watched his baby boy labor to lift his head. This small act, working to develop the muscles of his neck, would someday lead to sitting up, crawling, stumbling, sprinting.” – Victor LaValle, The Changeling
As a self-employed bookseller, Apollo’s the one who stays home with Brian when Emma has to go to work six weeks after delivery. I had five months at home, but the wrench of leaving was familiar. I had so many memories as Emma pumps milk for the baby and this little family watches home improvement shows. Apollo wakes with Brian in the night and wears him in the Björn to meet other dads in the park.
“Apollo had become one of those men. The New Dads…. New Dads do the dishes and the laundry. New Dads cook the meals. New Dads read the infant development books and do more research online…. New Dads are emotionally available…. New Dads fix all the mistakes the Old Dads made.” – Victor LaValle, The Changeling
And then Emma starts to receive pictures of Apollo and Brian together. Pictures that Apollo did not take. Pictures that soon disappear from her phone.
One quarter of the way through the book something awful happens. It’s the kind of thing we talk about in whispers or broadcast on the news in pure horror, pretending not to understand.
First, Emma’s sister, Kim, arrives at the apartment for Brian’s six-month checkup and notices that things are not going well. The house is a mess, the parents are exhausted. Emma, in general, is not alright enough that Kim feels compelled to tell Emma the real story of their parents’ death.
This part of the book, too, felt very real as you begin to suspect that Emma has post-partum depression. A simple word for a complex experience. One that was all too familiar to me, except no one checked in on us long enough or frequently enough to realize how badly I was doing. How even the wonderful New Dad I married couldn’t buffer me from what was happening in my body. Though he did help me get help, and we eventually we were making do again as best as we could. Until the pandemic. With increased stress and decreased access to any reprieve or help, I had some very bad days this winter.
When Emma locks Apollo to a steam pipe in their apartment and kills their baby, I felt the natural horror and revulsion. I was also scared that I did understand what could make her do something so awful.
I put the book down and walked around for a few days trying to express the inexpressible. And then I picked it back up to see how on earth Apollo could move forward from the unthinkable.
There’s So Much More to the Story
Keep in mind, all of this occurs about one quarter of the way through the book. Apollo’s rich journey is far from over at this point and the things that arise speak beautifully to friendship and to living the life you have. There are fantastical twists, mythical allusions (from multiple cultures), and smart cultural commentaries—and I loved every single page. Apollo is true to his New Dad nature throughout the book and I very much hope future generations of dads look to Apollo as an example.
As for me, I’m moving forward as best as I can. I have a stable income, health, a wonderfully supportive partner and a beautiful boy who woke up today in the best of moods. And the bulbs I planted in the fall are starting to poke up. I have the week off of work and I plan to read many, many more books while following whatever erratic sleep schedule my body chooses, all while drinking very good tea. I don’t know if anything I read will touch me as deeply as The Changeling, but I can hope.
If you are hurting right now, please know that you are not alone. And if there is anything I can do to help, please speak up. It is wonderfully important to see ourselves reflected in literature. It is even more wonderful and important that we’re there for each other in real life.