Brenna Yovanoff’s first novel The Replacement caught me off-guard; a book that was fascinating not for the story, but for the way in which that story was told. It was the cover art that initially caught my attention: a vintage baby carriage with an array of sharp objects dangling above it from a tree branch. I can easily imagine that image as the poster for a Tim Burton film.
Malcolm “Mackie” Doyle is a teenager living in the small industrial town of Gentry, a place that is clearly harbouring a deep, dark secret. No one says anything openly, but Mackie knows that something is going on — it’s in the town’s prosperity, in the way children keep disappearing, in the strange rituals and customs that make up life amongst the townsfolk.
And Mackie should know, because he’s a part of that secret. For as long as he can remember, he’s been struggling with allergies to iron, blood and consecrated ground; concentrating every second of every day to appear as normal as possible in front of his peers. It’s not as easy as it sounds: in the first chapter alone he has a bad reaction to a school blood drive and discovers that someone has scratched “freak” into his locker. He knows the reason why his family is so protective of him, even though they never speak of it, and he knows why a girl at school thinks that he knows something about her little sister’s disappearance.
If all this sounds deliberately vague — then good. The setup is deliberately and carefully constructed to give the reader the bare essentials without giving everything away. Mackie’s first-person narration works incredibly well as he gradually lets the reader in on all his secrets, divulging one detail at a time to keep you hooked. Early on he reminds himself of the death of a man who was dragged from his home and killed by an angry mob after a child went missing. Later, he recalls a story that his sister tells him, about a man creeping into their home at night and stealing a baby from her little brother’s crib — and leaving Mackie in his place.
Both have little in the way of context, and it’s up to the reader to start piecing together the elements of Mackie’s condition and psychology. In many ways, Mackie speaks with the assumption that the reader is already aware of who and what he is, resulting in a confiding tone that draws you in and makes you invest in his story. His social anxiety and deep longing to fit in is vividly realized, as his constant battle to appear normal. You wince whenever he slips up because you’re acutely aware of just how high the cost would be should his true nature be exposed.
Gradually all the disparate pieces of his narrative begin to add up, and though it doesn’t take a genius to realize what’s really going on, the slow trickle of information is what keeps you gripped. Mackie leads us through his relationships with his parents, his sister, his best friends, his would-be girlfriend, and an array of mysterious strangers who seem to have a vested interest in his life, all of whom carry the story forward and who lead to the uncovering of a new revelation. With a little girl’s life hanging in the balance, Mackie must come to terms with who is he and where he really belongs – and what he’s willing to jeopardize in order to act.
There is a sort-of “whimsical macabre” feel to the entire book, with several unsettling or even disturbing images throughout. Yet there is also room for warmth and laughter and love, whether it be between siblings, parents or friends — even the burgeoning attraction between clumsy teenagers. The ending feels a little rushed, with a rather unclear resolution as to the main conflict (I think the power of love had something to do with it, but I’ve no idea how), but for the most part Yovanoff weaves a captivating story in which the darkness and danger of the fey world is juxtaposed with the no-less complex human world, each with their own set of incomprehensible rules and sensibilities. Mackie’s attempts to negotiate his way through each makes up the most poignant part of the story, and his longing to find a place where he belongs is palpable.
Modern and yet Gothic, filled with the familiar tropes and patterns of folklore yet told by from an unlikely point-of-view, The Replacement is a very strong first novel. Anyone who likes dark fairytales, urban fantasy or the work of Tim Burton will probably enjoy what it has to offer.