Review: Changeling

Matt Wesolowski – Changeling

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £8.99. I bought this book new.

Matt Wesolowski’s podcast-structured Six Stories series has gone from strength to strength, and in Changeling, he turns his attention to one of life’s most emotionally charged incidents: a missing child. Each Six Stories book is a standalone bar one connection: podcaster Scott King himself. And while the introduction to the Alfie Marsden case is a mix of facts and suggestions designed to lure in the reader, there’s also an interesting hint about King in the prologue. Hang on to that thought, you’ll want to examine it a few times as you read on.

The transcript of the 999 call that opens Episode 1 is utterly heart-breaking and I had goosebumps at the end of it. The reader, it seems, is to be put through the wringer alongside the characters. The facts, then: Sorrel Marsden stopped his car in Wentshire Forest on the night of 24 December, 1988 after visiting his ex-wife, Sonja. Their son Alfie, seven, vanished from the back seat. He was never found. Wentshire Forest is an ancient woodland filled with history and the myths that grow up when archaeological finds can’t easily be explained. It’s a liminal space, crossing the literal border between England and Wales and the borders in the mind between reality and the supernatural. Alfie’s disappearance and the fact that Sorrel still makes an annual trip to the forest – something akin to a pilgrimage – become part of the dark folklore that surrounds these miles of trees.

There was a development of holiday cabins just beginning to be created in the forest when Alfie vanished. The former boss of the company speaks of the forest itself hindering the search. Builder Callum, then a 19-year-old labourer, tells King of his experiences on the site – scary even to read if it’s late at night and trees are rustling outside the window, take my word for it – and says of Alfie’s disappearance: “My heart says it’s that forest. It’s pure evil.” Most crime novels give us a hint of what could be causing mysterious goings-on, but don’t forget Wesolowski’s earlier experience as a writer in horror, a genre far more comfortable discussing malevolent creatures. King may say he doesn’t want to get sidetracked by the folktales that surround Wentshire Forest, but the reader is all but getting up to check the doors and windows are locked so persuasive are the stories.

Meanwhile, the section describing Alfie at school is devastating. Behaviour that might be euphemistically described as “challenging” means he is seen as a lost cause by most – and a far cry from the child he was at his previous school, apparently. At a meeting with the headteacher, Sorrel jokes: “Sometimes we wonder where this boy came from? What’s he done with our son?” And while everyone in the room laughs, the reader, mind filled with the forest folklore, wonders instead where Wesolowski is taking us. We look again at the novel’s title, and think about tales of the fairies taking human children away and leaving something other in their place, and a chill crawls up the spine. But there has to be a rational explanation for all this, no? 

After hearing from people who knew Sorrel and Sonja, King finally tracks down Sonja herself, who agrees to tell her story – though she believes no-one will be interested in hearing from her. She has shunned attention since Alfie’s disappearance and lived a mostly isolated life. There’s bombshell after bombshell in the interview – some I was less surprised by, after earlier hints, but some came out of left field to hit me forcefully. At the end of the chapter I had to put the book down for a few minutes to process what I’d just read; some crucial pieces in the jigsaw were added that totally changed the picture being created in front of my eyes.

The final chapter opens with a series of snippets of voices that are utterly chilling. In the acknowledgements Wesolowski thanks “everyone who told me their stories” and praises their bravery. The start of the book sees the supernatural put front and centre, then without the reader really noticing the focus shifts to people and all-too-real actions, and ends in a place more horrific than any folktale. “Reality is, after all, where we find our scariest monsters,” says Wesoloski in a note at the end; I wholeheartedly agree.

Wesoloski’s writing, always excellent – empathetic, moving – is superlative here. His handling of sensitive issues is delicate but unflinching, enhanced by the multiple viewpoints. The final reveal comes after a chapter of such power that I felt I held my breath the whole way through the pages.

Six Stories is a concept I have thought clever and fresh since the start. In Changeling, Wesolowski has given the world something vital; it should be studied in schools and universities far and wide, such is the power of its message and its method of disseminating that message. He blew my socks off, and I am kicking myself for not reading the book before now, I’ve missed so many opportunities to tell everyone I know how brilliant it is – so I am starting right now: dear blog readers, Changeling is brilliant, I can’t recommend it enough.

Follow the author on Twitter at: @ConcreteKraken

You can read my review of Hydra here.

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