William Butler Yeats' 1886 poem "The Stolen Child" is a favorite lyric source among modern Celtic performers, and with good reason, given its sweetly melancholy imagery of fairies luring a young boy away from a world "more full of weeping than he can understand" and into a mischievous, timeless idyll. The idea of stepping away from workaday concerns and into blissful immortality forms the backbone of religion as well as centuries of folklore, and Yeats' poem gives the concept a particularly romantic gloss. But Keith Donohue's remarkable debut novel, titled after and inspired by Yeats' poem, puts a more realistic and painful face on the conflict between ageless escapism and normal life.
Donohue's book opens with a band of hobgoblins—fairies, but more like a grubby, feral pack of J.M. Barrie's Lost Boys than like the winged, taffeta-clothed Tinkerbells of popular imagining—capturing 7-year-old runaway Henry Day in the woods and sending one of their number home in his place, as a changeling. Given an unconventional baptism and rechristened Aniday, the stolen boy loses his memories and much of his sense of self; as decades pass, he lives as a permanent child in the wilderness, making friends and enemies among the hobgoblin band, struggling for survival, and trying to remember his past. Meanwhile, his replacement grows up among his new human family, perpetually fearing discovery, trying to fit in, and worrying at his own lost memories of childhood a century ago, when he was in turn stolen by the fairies and replaced with one of their number.
Like Graham Joyce's The Tooth Fairy or Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, The Stolen Child is the kind of mainstream fantasy that takes place at the borders of recognizable reality; Donohue's beautifully evocative prose channels some of Yeats' poetic whimsy, but he stays grounded in convincing relationships on both sides of that border, and his style is more modern literary classic than fairytale fluff. While his setting is vague—he mentions dates and events like the Vietnam War, but they never meaningfully touch anyone's life—his characters' quest for identity, purpose, and conviction is vividly concrete, and their attempts to understand the alien people around them is more a metaphor for human loneliness than a fairy story. Growing up or living forever, in magic or mundanity, his changelings are just dealing with the real pain of emotional maturity, and with the difficulty of understanding others when all people are ultimately trapped and alone in their own heads.