[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
I read Margaret Mahy’s Carnegie-winning novel first as a teenager and again just recently, in my twenties. Despite the passage of time, I found that The Changeover had lost none of its potency. It’s still a striking coming-of-age story, still a nail-biting supernatural thriller, still a fascinating character study, and still a dark urban fairytale that fully deserves the recognition it got at the time of its first publication back in the 1980s. It has aged remarkably well, for as Mahy points out in her postscript, there is very little use of eighties lingo or technology. This story could just as easily take place in the 21st century as it did two decades ago.
The story itself is surprisingly straightforward: Laura Chant is a teenage girl who experiences “warnings” before periods of upheaval in her life, and one such warning strikes her at the opening of the book. Sure enough, on the way home from school her three year old brother Jacko is marked out by a sinister storekeeper, causing him to fall gravely ill.
Recognizing that there are supernatural forces at work, Laura seeks the help of a family of witches that live in the community; for she has long-since identified her school fellow Sorenson Carlisle as a witch. He, his mother and his grandmother come up with a solution that will allow Laura to save her brother’s life: become a witch herself by undergoing a “changeover.” Only then will she have the power to vanquish the spirit attacking her brother’s life force.
It is a plot that almost seems simplistic (you’d except to see a condensed version in the teaser on the average episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural), but the power of this story is in the telling. Through her masterful use of language, Mahy’s simple story conceit becomes a metaphorical coming-of-age tale in which Laura traverses the landscape of her mind in order to unlock her innate power. The integral chapter that lends the book its title deserves to be read twice over on the strength of its intensity, mystery and sheer effectiveness.
Balancing out the supernatural side of things are Laura’s conflicting feelings over her mother bringing home a new boyfriend and the reappearance of her absentee father, as well as the usual perplexities that beset the average teenage girl: the onset of puberty, the disillusions of adulthood, and the awareness of the opposite sex.
Mahy has a gift with words, turning the subdivision of Gardendale into a dangerous fairytale realm, portraying Laura’s family (her adored little brother and rather scatterbrained mother) as a household that a teenage girl would willingly fight to the death for, and bringing to life a mysterious, striking, incomprehensible male witch that repels as much as he attracts. According to Mahy’s postscript, Laura was originally going to seek out the help of a female classmate, but on flipping the gender of this character to male, the novel’s entire tone was changed. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, for as a male witch grappling with a feminine heritage, Sorenson (or “Sorry” as he’s nicknamed) is inevitably drawn to Laura’s companionship in combating his own traumatic past and lonely present.
The prose is so rich that I found during my second read that I could recall certain passages as if I’d read the book only yesterday instead of years ago, and despite knowing the conclusion, I still found my anticipation rising as the story headed toward its climax.
As a kiwi, The Changeover will always be close to my heart considering it is set in (or was at least inspired by) the city in which I was born and raised, and was the book that made me aware that the fantasy genre is not restricted to faraway places. Mahy speaks of the “imagination displacement” she suffered from prior to the writing of The Changeover, stemming from the experience of being a New Zealand author raised on books that were set entirely in the English countryside. Having overcome this unusual form of writer’s block, The Changeover serves as an eye-opener for any New Zealand reader considering its blend of a familiar landscape with the wider aspects of folklore and fairytale.
That’s not to say that international readers are excluded. Its content transcends its location to become a story about universal emotions, experiences and ideas. Mahy is a master storyteller, with a firm grasp of imagery and without a single wasted or superfluous word, in which Laura’s mundane life is just as fascinating as the mysterious world of the Carlisle witches (of course it is, it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it wasn’t). As a display of writing expertise, Mahy proves herself the well-deserved winner of the 1984 Carnegie Medal, and The Changeover demands a second read just to once again take you by surprise at how simultaneously simple and complex it really is.