The Stolen Child - Lisa Carey *****
It seems like there are a lot of books dealing with fairies and the little folk recently, but few of them in my experience have put the subject to good use or have had anything original to add to the mythology. Alison Littlewood's Hidden People, for example, comes across as a little too well researched from folk stories and authentically written as if it could have been written 100 years ago, feels very old-fashioned. On the other hand, Laurence Donaghy's comic/horror take on Folk'd trilogy ambitiously tied the activities of the little folk to Irish mythology and connected it all up to the present day by tapping into real-life family concerns.
Perhaps it just works better in an Irish situation, but the truth is that what really makes Lisa Carey's handling of subject work so well is in how it similarly ties what goes on above the land with the legends of what lies beneath it. The two are inextricably linked, the one informing and impacting on the other, and in that respect then, yes, there's something about life in Ireland, in remote communities where life is hard and bad things happen, where there is a close relationship with the land itself that gives rise to and credence in the existence of fairies.
There's just such a community in Carey's The Stolen Child, a small group of families living on the remote island nine miles off the coast of Ireland. In 1960 the time has come for the people to leave the island of of St Brigid's and move to homes that have been built on the mainland, as life is no longer sustainable there. Just a year before the move however, an American woman had returned to claim her inheritance; a woman called Brigid. The woman is clearly troubled and has come in search of something and it's most likely the fabled well of St Brigid for its miraculous healing powers. Brigid however has healing powers of her own, and is looking for something more than that.
The people on the island aren't too keen on offering up their secrets to a stranger. Even though she is most hostile to the woman, it's Emer, an islander woman with her own personal problems, who befriends Brigid and comes to recognise that there is something special about her. Emer would know; as a young child she believes that the fairies rejected her after an attempted abduction, and the encounter has left a mark on her and on her son Niall, who she believes the fairies may consequently lay claim to. She recognises that Brigid herself might know something about the unique properties of the island's water and wants something else from it.
She doesn't know the half of it. Brigid's background has been a troubled one, and it you aren't supposed to take the title literally, the question of a Stolen Child refers partly to Brigid's lost childhood as much as it does to fears of having a child who might be a changeling. If those two themes sound like the sit uneasily together, one of a horrific family upbringing the other of fears of little folk beneath the ground claiming your child for their own, Lisa Carey blend myth and reality together extraordinarily well. She recognises that such fears and myths come from deep places in a dark reality, many of them related to the fate of women, the trauma of childbirth (and its associated shame in a Catholic country like Ireland), and to all the abuses that can go on within the closed doors of family.
That sounds fairly bleak material but it's precisely the translation of such realities into folk tales that makes The Stolen Child compelling and relatable. Some of it borders on condoning or at least tolerating abuse, some of it borders on condoning the belief in fairies, but there's room for ambiguity that suggests that whether we accept it or not, these things happen. There's consequently an edge to the work, a dangerous eroticism, a repression of deep passions and a conversion of them into something else, something that might have to do with fairy tales or it might not. It's the quality of the actual writing, its use of language and its ability to delve into places that are difficult to express in common words that make The Stolen Child troubling but compelling reading.
The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey is published on 17th January 2017 by W&N
The Stolen Child - Lisa Carey *****