The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

1984 HB, art by Bruce Hogarth

The Changeover (1984) is Margaret Mahy’s second YA novel, and her second Carnegie Medal Winner (following The Haunting in 1982). According to her postscript to the 2003 Modern Classics edition, it started out as the story of an 11-year-old girl who sought the help of a somewhat witchy girl of her own age to save her younger brother from a supernatural menace, but that story faltered until Mahy changed the witchy girl to an older (though still witchy) boy, and upped the protagonist’s age to 14, introducing an element of incipient sexuality to the mix. (The novel was initially published with the subtitle, “A Supernatural Romance”, though that seems to have been dropped in modern editions.)

Laura is a part-Maori girl of 14 who takes care of her 3-year-old brother Jacko after school while her mother Kate runs the local branch of a chain bookstore. (Laura and Jacko’s father went off with another woman, leaving the family in something just above poverty. As Kate says: “It’s not that we’re poor… But we’re usually short.” I particularly like how Mahy puts it when an unexpected expense comes up, and Kate “gritted her teeth in financial agony”.)

1985 HB

Bringing Jacko home one day from his daytime babysitter, the pair pop into a new shop, Brique à Braque, run by the eccentric/creepy Carmody Braque, who Laura thinks smells of “rotting time”. (He’s later described as “an improbable cross between Dracula and Mr Pickwick”.) Braque playfully stamps the back of Jacko’s hand with a rubber stamp, but afterwards the boy is bothered by it, and the image won’t come off. Jacko falls ill, a doctor is called, and pretty soon he’s comatose in hospital. Laura is convinced it’s Braque, through his stamp, magically draining her brother of his life, but her mother dismisses this with a “Don’t frighten me any more with your Space Invaders rubbish!” (A rare 80s-specific moment for the book.)

2018 cover

The only thing to do, then, is for Laura to get help for Jacko in her own way. She has long felt that an older boy at school, Sorensen Carlisle (known as “Sorry”), is something of a witch, and she’s often found him looking at her, as though he knows she knows. She decides to call on him at his home and ask for help. There, she meets his witchy mother and witchy grandmother, and learns his mother became pregnant assuming she’d have a girl, a young witch to complete the traditional trio of crone, mother, and virgin. But he was a boy, so she gave him up to be fostered, only to learn, much later, that he nevertheless had a witch’s powers. By that time, Sorry had had to learn to live with and understand his powers on his own, as well as having become the focus for his alcoholic foster-father’s rages. He turned up in a terrible state at the Carlisle home, and now, though somewhat better, is still highly reserved and at times almost alienated, emotionally. (When he speaks of what’s happened to Jacko, Laura thinks “He behaved as if something had gone wrong with a car, not a brother.”)

But the family agree to help. Braque, they think, isn’t a human being at all — at least, not now, anyway — but “an old and careful demon”, “a wicked spirit that has managed to win a body for itself once more and has probably gone on by absorbing the lives of others…” The only way to break his hold on Jacko, though, is to put Braque under a similar hold. He’d be too wary of any of the Carlisle family to let them get close enough, but Laura might. However, she’d only be able to put him under a hold if she was a witch herself. And so the family suggest she become one. She’s already proved she’s a “sensitive” through being able to see the witchiness in Sorry, and Braque won’t be expecting her, previously not a witch, to have suddenly become one. The Carlisles can initiate her through “the changeover” of the book’s title:

“We will marry you, if we can, to some sleeping aspect of yourself, and you must wake it.”

1994 Puffin PB cover, art by Tom Stimpson

The world of The Changeover feels very much like that of Mahy’s earlier novel, The Haunting. In both, certain families have a strain of magic, and though this means they can do wonderful things, they’re also far more emotionally reserved — not because of their powers, but because they are so much more sensitive. (Sorry’s mother says “We are a fond family rather than a loving one”, but this may be an emotionally cool family’s inability to judge just how cool it is.) Both the Carlisles in The Changeover, and the Scholars in The Haunting have the power to change reality, but this doesn’t make life easier for them — rather, the opposite, considering the distance this puts between them and their fellow human beings, and all the pitfalls the misuse of power throws in front of them.

In a way, in The Changeover, we get a glimpse of three stages in the life of a “magical” person, and how they might or might not go wrong. Braque, if not an actual demon, has certainly become one through multiple lifetimes of preying on others, till he has come to enjoy it, calling himself “something of a gourmet”. Sorry, on the other hand, has been abused by life and now stands at a crossroads, unsure how much he wants to invest himself in being an ordinary human, or how much he wants to take ownership of his capacity to feel. And Laura, taking her first steps into the world of power, is hovering over its first pitfall: once she has Braque at her mercy, she can do anything she likes to him. She tells herself “He’s not a real person, Mr Braque isn’t”, and he has, after all, been torturing not just her brother, but herself and her mother with all he’s been doing. But it leads to the question:

“Given the chance to be cruel did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?”

Laura’s story is also about her learning to understand — or at least come to terms with — men. She likes Jacko, of course, but he’s only a boy. She’s grown to resent her “dark, powerful father” who abandoned the family, and feels her mother’s new boyfriend, Chris, is taking her mother away from her rather than adding to the family. She’s attracted to Sorry, but finds his oddly distanced personality, and his frank sexual curiosity in women, somewhat difficult. And of course Braque is the ultimate example, to Laura, of how a powerful and selfish man can behave. But through coming to understand Sorry, and his own rather sorry story, she starts to understand her father and her mother’s boyfriend a little more, while knowing to draw the line at ever forgiving something like Braque.

The Changeover was made into a feature film, released in 2017, with Timothy Spall perfect as the creepy Braque, and a brief appearance from Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Sorry’s mother. It’s a dark, quite effective take on the story, set some years after the earthquake of 2011 that hit Christchurch, New Zealand (which is where Mahy’s novel is set). The plot makes a few abrupt departures from the book (I thought one element of the ending took things a bit far, but perhaps because I was mentally comparing it to the book). It’s the feel that’s the most different thing. Mahy’s book is infused with the coming-into-magic air of an adolescent’s burgeoning awareness of themselves, the world, and their place in it; the film is much more of a supernatural thriller, creepy and compelling, but without so much of the positive magic of Mahy’s novel. A good film, nonetheless, keeping some of the book’s restraint as far as magical powers go, and upping the presence and menace of Braque.

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