The Changeling, the first of a young adult fantasy trilogy set in north Mayo, is very different from my previous work.
When I lived in London, I wrote about the stress of inner city life, and how young teenagers face violence and abuse and overcome it – if they can – with hope and solidarity. Primrose Hill and Sky High were both published by Faber and Faber.
Then fifteen years ago, I and my husband and small children moved to Killala, in north Mayo – exchanging the Victorian terrace in Walthamstow for a stone house near Ross beach. Suddenly, instead of traffic and crowds, there were fields and a horse. Visitors from our old life, when getting out of their cars, would look around and ask, ‘Where’s the road?’ because they could hear the constant muffled roar that in England spells ‘motorway’. But it was only the sea at the bottom of our fields, crashing onto the beach.
Very quickly, the London writing died away. I hadn’t been expecting that – it came as a shock, both to me and my editor. But it seems I always need to write about the world I am in – using the voices I am hearing, and describing what is on my doorstep. My London teenage son had grown up and gone to college, and although he was still home every holiday, I was no longer in close touch with his circle of friends. Instead, my younger children were growing up with Irish accents like their father’s, and I was surrounded by a wild empty landscape steeped in a history so ancient and spiritual that it blurs seamlessly into mythology.
Here in north Mayo, the world of the fairies and the old gods lies very close to the surface. Old tombs, dolmens, raths and stone circles litter the fields. This is Tuatha Dé Danann country. It was through these raths and circles that the famous fairy race descended into the underworld which lies under Connacht – the Land of the Young, otherwise known as the Land of the Living, a country where no-one ever grows old.
This is also St Patrick country. The saint fought against the old gods here – battling them on the cliffs of Downpatrick Head and on the mountain of Croagh Patrick. He waged a fierce war against the druids just outside Killala, and apparently made a serious attempt to convert the Tuatha Dé Danann.
But the ancient fairies remain today as they always were – pagan, dark, mysterious, beautiful. And they have never grown old. I have neighbours my own age who bought their house cheap, because it was known to be built on a fairy road. I know people whose grandmothers hung iron tongs over their cradle, to stop them being stolen by the fairies and replaced with a ‘changeling’ – a fairy child which is left behind in the human child’s place.
It took me a good long while to absorb this world, the wild new landscape and its new sounds. But finally everything filtered through to the surface, and The Changeling was born.
In the book, a human child has been stolen and a fairy child has been left behind in her place. But Aoife, the fairy child, doesn’t know she is not her parents’ real daughter – not until she turns fifteen, and strange things start to happen to her. First she sees a small child out on the bog, who turns out not to be there at all. Then she starts to develop unusual powers – locks, for instance, click open under her fingertips. Which is how she finds a book of baby photographs hidden in her parents’ drawer. Family portraits, of a very different child.
I have said that The Changeling marks a radical departure from my first two books. It is written in a different genre, and set in a completely different world – fantasy instead of social realism, rural Ireland instead of London.
Yet the protagonist is the same age – fifteen – and the themes are similar. Displacement, a feeling of not belonging, running away. Growth and transformation. Overcoming darkness and finding your way into the light. A spreading of wings, metaphorical or real.
London was the backdrop to my first books, and London stories were their inspiration (the first chapter of Primrose Hill is almost word for word a real story that my son told me about one of his friends).
The landscape of north Mayo, and its tradition forms the world of The Changeling. And the emotional story that underpins the book was born ten years ago, in response to the death of my best friend’s child. The whole trilogy is dedicated to that lovely little girl.
(c) Helen Falconer
About The Changeling
Some of us are born to be magic.
Aoife is an ordinary teenager, hanging out with her childhood friend Carla, putting up with school. The worst she has to contend with is that the boy of Carla’s dreams is trying to get off with her instead.
But then, after chasing a lost little girl no one seems to be able to see, Aoife starts to develop mysterious powers. Eventually her parents confess that she isn’t their real daughter. Their human child was stolen by the fairies, and Aoife is the changeling left behind in her place.
Shocked and disorientated, Aoife turns to Shay, the taciturn farmer’s son who is the only person who might believe her story. Together, they embark on a dangerous journey, which takes them deep into the underworld and changes everything they thought they knew about fairies.
The Changeling is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!